By Lara Notarianni
Modern audiences seem to have an obsession with true crime podcasts, Netflix series, and TV shows. Yet retellings of real crime and horror stories now available on our devices are not a new phenomenon. From the 1830s, wide audiences turned to “penny papers” for cheap entertainment. These tabloid-like publications sold for a penny and included serial novels published in weekly installments. Known first as “penny bloods” and later as “penny dreadfuls,” the stories drew inspiration from 18th- and 19th-century gothic novels as well as infamous true crimes.
Versatile theatre artist Charles Ludlam reinvented and satirized the penny serials with one of his most famous works, The Mystery of Irma Vep—A Penny Dreadful in 1984. A leader of avant-garde theatre in New York City, Ludlam started the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967, where he wrote, produced, directed, and acted in his own plays. He often parodied established forms such as opera, film noir, and penny dreadfuls while playing the starring role, male or female, alongside his company of actors. The Hofstra University graduate’s audience grew from a cult following with the help of his performance as Marguerite Gautier in his Camille (1974) and his quick-change comedy The Mystery of Irma Vep. Just as his artistry gained wider appreciation, Ludlam was diagnosed with AIDS and died from pneumonia at the age of 44 in 1987. The Mystery of Irma Vep remains the most produced of his plays.
Perhaps Irma Vep’s ability to remain such a mainstay in American theatre more than 20 years after its 1998 Off-Broadway debut lies in the variety of allusions to popular culture. References include Hitchcock’s film Rebecca, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Shakespeare, and penny dreadfuls, (not to mention werewolves, vampires, and mummies, oh my!). To take his spoof of these subjects and the melodramatic style to new levels of hilarity, Ludlam wrote the play to be performed by only two actors of the same gender, ensuring quick changes and cross-dressing to amuse audiences and challenge theatre artists.
Irma Vep will be staged in the Schubert Theatre for the second time. To make its return even more special, the same fearsome threesome that brought it to life in 2007 will tackle the undead once more—Jim Helsinger will direct PSF veterans Christopher Patrick Mullen and Brad DePlanche. And, again, they will be joined by most of the same design team as the 2007 production.
Helsinger, who will direct this play for the fourth time, favors the words “fascinating” and “fun” as he describes what draws audiences to this piece. “We love gothic vampires, werewolves—the whole sense of the thriller.” With characters that Helsinger describes as a brooding and tortured lord, a young femme fatale, and odd servants; plus more than a few pinches of mystery thrown into the cauldron, audiences find Ludlam’s world irresistible.
As for the fun, “It’s like Laurel and Hardy meets Frankenstein and werewolves,” Helsinger says. Quick changes, tricks, plus cross-dressing offer the comic relief he believes people look for in the summer. Christopher Patrick Mullen calls it “a fantastic piece of delicious nonsense,” and his costar Brad DePlanche promises that with this team “there’s never a shortage of madcap hilarity.”
The Mystery of Irma Vep will also leave audiences with the “How did they do it?” mystery of how two actors are able to pull off multiple characters and quick changes. Helsinger believes that this appreciation the audience gains is just as important as the story and comedy. “Part of what makes it so fun is to reduce the plot and enjoy the artistry.”
With too many quick changes to count, the backstage action is as choreographed and rehearsed as what happens on stage. Mullen claims that the final technical rehearsals, when the wardrobe crew and actors begin to learn and practice the quick changes, are the most difficult for him. Due to the intensity of the backstage antics, “…it is in our contracts (I’m not kidding—it actually is) that we have a limitless supply of Gatorade – whatever flavor we want,” he shares.
DePlanche, who looks forward to his seventh PSF season and seventh rendition of Irma Vep, adds that because the quick changes leave no room for off-stage breaks, his costumes will likely be a little looser on him by the end of the four week run.
Helsinger quickly adds, “It takes a village to do a two-person show,” reminding the audience of the entire team of artists who make the on-stage shenanigans possible including costume designer Lisa Zinni, scenic and lighting designer Steve TenEyck, both veterans of the previous production, and the run crews who facilitate the costume and scenic changes as well as the lighting and sound cues for each performance. He shares that the curtain call, when the “army” appears from backstage, is one of his favorite moments in the show.
All three agree that this production of Ludlam’s classic will be special because of the established relationship they have with the script, each other, and the audience. “Fasten your seat belts…It’s gonna be a bumpy farce,” Mullen exclaims. Heed his warning and prepare for the scares that will leave your heart racing and laughs that will leave your stomach in stitches as you join Lord Edgar, Lady Enid, and their strange friends to discover the mystery of the formidable Irma Vep.
Lara Notarianni is an actress and writer. She served as PSF’s interim education director and is a DeSales University alumna in Theatre.