Picture a Victorian melodrama, throw in a bloody werewolf thriller, a dash of Egyptology and a smattering of literary references to everything from Shakespeare to a 19th century penny dreadful called "Varney the Vampyre." Add a slew of double entendres, puns and a couple of cross-dressing actors and the result could only be Charles Ludlam's madcap whodunit, "The Mystery of Irma Vep."
This campy 1984 gem is both a send-up and a celebration of all things theatrical. It's also a tour de force for the two game actors who play more than a half-dozen roles, including a wolf and a portrait that comes briefly to life.
Ludlam, who died in 1987, was the founder and artistic director of New York's aptly named Ridiculous Theatrical Company, a place that mingled joy, controlled anarchy and sheer chutzpah (Ludlam starred in his own adaptations of "Camille" and a pseudo-biography of Maria Callas called "Galas"). "Irma Vep," his biggest success, not only holds nothing sacred, but it also revels in bad taste. In these painfully politically correct times, it is a hilarious breath of foul air.
At Columbia's Rep Stage, under Kasi Campbell's direction, Bruce Nelson and Brian McMonagle understand that the only way to play this nonsense is with the utmost seriousness. Though Center Stage's 1991 production -- director Stan Wojewodski Jr.'s Baltimore swan song -- remains close to my heart and closer to my funny bone, the team in Columbia is doing a rip-snorting job.
The play takes place at Mandacrest (Ludlam's version of Manderley in du Maurier's "Rebecca"), a remote English estate that has been troubled by wolves (Ludlam's salute to "Varney"). Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist who lost his wife and only son to a wolf, has recently remarried, and his longtime housekeeper has no love lost for her new mistress ("Rebecca" again).
Nelson shines in a quartet of diverse performances. Swathed in pink maribou and coyly tossing long, platinum blond locks, he portrays Lord Edgar's new wife, Enid, as a vain Victorian Valley Girl, whose most comical moments occur when trying to read Lord Edgar's soporific treatise on Egyptology. His crude Nicodemus, the stable boy, wears a set of misshapen protruding teeth that would embarrass a horse and clumps about with an unruly wooden leg that seems to have a life of its own. His Alcazaar, Lord Edgar's crafty Egyptian guide, holds the reins of an offstage camel that has a nasty habit of spitting on all within range. And he plays the wolf, which pays an unexpected visit to the Mandacrest drawing room, with all the dignity of a wild animal in rut.
McMonagle is almost as versatile, although it would spoil the mystery's solution to reveal the full extent of his versatility. Suffice it to say that he portrays Mandacrest's surly housekeeper, Jane, as a fortress of a woman whose severe appearance mirrors an equally severe temperament. And he plays Lord Edgar as the type of harrumphing British retired military twit who probably sleeps in uniform, with a pipe clenched tightly between his teeth.
In addition to the offstage spitting camel, Campbell and her nimble designers -- Lou Stancari, sets; Johnathan Blandin, lighting; Lonnie Fullerton, costumes; Scott Burgess, music; and especially Miss Stella and Michael Thompson, props -- have added a number of other delightful touches. For example, when Jane enters carrying a candle, it's an electric one, which lights up when she blows on the bulb. And when Lord Edgar dons the garb of an ancient Egyptian priest, he adds the horned helmet of a Valkyrie. The backstage crew, incidentally, gets a workout in this show and earns a well-deserved bow at the end.
"Somehow it just doesn't make sense," Lady Enid exclaims in the final scene. Of course it doesn't. But it's a heck of a lot of fun.
Where: Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, through March 12