Who's old enough to remember Plastic Man? He was the oddest of super heroes. He was not bulging with muscles like Superman. He had no aura of kinky fetishism like Batman. His great trick was an ability to take any shape he wanted to. However, in whatever shape he appeared, you could recognize him, because of his distinctive superhero uniform.
So, there would be the villain, buying a turkey off the shelf of the grocery store to take back to his secret hideout for a feast in which he would celebrate his nefarious triumph. But we, the young readership, would not fail to notice (as the villain had) that the particular turkey he had picked was distinctly different in color from the others on the shelf. It was none other than Plastic Man, who would resume his human shape at the appropriate moment and apprehend the villain right in the middle of his celebration.
The Mystery of Irma Vep, currently on the boards at Le Petit, offers a pleasure not unlike the old Plastic Man comics, for part of the fun in this quick-change spoof comes from the same kind of double vision in which we recognize the same actor beneath so many disguises. Why this in itself should be so amusing, I have no idea. But it is -- provided, of course, you can find not one, but two "plastic men," who are up to the demands of this comic delirium.
Well, as they say in the hinterlands, Mama Walker didn't raise her up no fool. Her son, Carl, the director, decided to make his job easy with two phone calls, one to Ricky Graham and one to Sean Patterson. With this threesome at work on Charles Ludlam's hilarious script, it would certainly have taken a mummy's curse for things to have gone wrong.
Graham, in addition to having done Irma Vep once before with Walker, has shown his flair for deft switches of character more times than one can easily recall. He had a nightclub act that featured many personas; he's done Greater Tuna to acclaim; and he's currently laying them in the aisles with his Hollywood Heaven at Le Chat Noir, where he and partner Roy Haylock portray a panoply of Tinsel Town greats gone to that eternal Oscar Night in the sky. Meanwhile, Patterson won a Big Easy Entertainment Award for his performance in last year's one-man show, Fully Committed -- a role so multiple it may require a long recovery in a Swiss sanatorium. Fully Committed was also directed by Walker.
Iram Vep, which Ludlam subtitled "A Penny Dreadful," begins and ends in Mandacrest, the ancestral country estate of Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Patterson), who has recently married the new Lady Hillcrest (Graham), an ex-actress. This demeaning profession (!) disqualifies her in the eyes of the maid (Patterson) from assuming the mantle left by the dearly departed first Lady Hillcrest -- an opinion not shared by Nicodemus Underwood (Graham), an old family retainer with a wooden leg. He lost his leg in the unfortunate and murky events having to do with a pet wolf that may or may not have torn out the throat of the young Hillcrest heir. Lycanthropy is also possibly to blame.
In act two, we travel with Lord Hillcrest to Egypt, where Alcazar (Graham) leads his lordship to an unviolated tomb that contains the princess Pev Amri (Graham), whose cartouche reads: "She who sleeps but will awake." The descent to the tomb, by the way, contains a bold and extremely comical directorial interpolation, that I think Ludlam would have enjoyed. In any case, Hillcrest and his beloved mummy return to Mandacrest, where the dark and dreadful secrets of the past are revealed.
Irma Vep is the most popular of Ludlam's plays, and with good reason. Ludlum is usually identified in the public mind with his more outrageous and shocking scripts. But, "outrageous and shocking" was only one of his moods. For instance, he did a lot of children's theater and, even, a one-man puppet show for kids. There are flashes of a sly naughtiness in Irma Vep. But Disney could produce the movie and not face a boycott by the Religious Right. It's family entertainment, Ludlam style, which means an inimitable mixture of snappy, literate dialogue and irresistible silliness.
As one expects at Le Petit, all the accoutrements are up to snuff. Bill Walker's set, Cecile Casey Covert's costumes, Martin Sachs' lighting and Jeffrey Talbot's sound design all help to create an aura of mock horror, well suited to the occasion. Peter Golub's original music is particularly effective.
In brief: a pleasing revival of a oddball modern classic.
- Sean Patterson and Ricky Graham take the audiences (and themselves) through the paces of their many characters flooding Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep at Le Petit.