Ridiculously Sublime : Staging the Farce 'Irma Vep' in Laguna Is a Joy for Jules Aaron

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Charles Ludlam, a real wise guy of a playwright, would have had fun with Orange County. There's enough overblown silliness around here to satisfy any farcical satirist, and Ludlam had a knack for puncturing any target in need of deflation.

He never made it to sunny O.C. (he chose Manhattan as his home base and rarely strayed from it, founding the Ridiculous Theater Company in 1967 and creating broad, gender-twisting comedy with a slicing edge until his death 20 years later). But "The Mystery of Irma Vep," which many consider his best work, opens tonight in a Laguna Playhouse production at the Moulton Theater.

It's a crazed and crazy farce full of lords, ladies, servants, mummies, vampires and werewolves. Jules Aaron, a director known for tackling classics, especially Shakespeare, has been responsible for making sense of all the lunacy. It's been a delightful job but a tiring one, he confessed during a recent break in rehearsals.

"I have to say that I enjoy this so much. I find it extremely funny: his wit, the way he sees things, the satirical elements. There is so much at work here; you really have to be aware" of what's going on in the script and on stage. "In that way it's extremely demanding. So much is happening that you need to make sure it all comes off gracefully. Just getting it right can wear you out."

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The cockeyed story begins at Mandacrest, an ancient estate on an isolated moor. The only obvious inhabitants are Jane the maid and Nicodemus the one-legged handyman.

Soon we meet Alcazar, an Egyptian guide, and Lord Edgar, who brings a sensual mummy to life while robbing graves amid the Pyramids. There's some nasty business involving murder and other humanly vices, and then the vampire and werewolf show up.

"It spoofs so many things from film and theater," Aaron said. "It takes on the romantic genre, movies like 'Rebecca' and 'Wuthering Heights,' and then also (satirizes) gothic horror stories. All that can be hilarious. And then, of course, there's the humor that comes from having two male actors play all the roles."

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The actors are Ron Campbell, who starred in "Monsieur Shaherazad" at now-defunct GroveShakespeare (he plays Jane and Lord Edgar, among others), and Anthony Forkush, who was in Howard Korder's "Search and Destroy" at South Coast Repertory (his roles here include Nicodemus and Alcazar).

All the quick changes and dressing up in drag make for humor that is quintessential Ludlam, Aaron said. "What it does is poke fun at sexual conventions, and it generates fun for the audience because we have to see (the actors) going from one character to another, from male to female, in moments."

Reviewers have lauded "Irma Vep" as one of the campiest comedies of its generation. But they've also been likely to warn audiences about gags that can be broad as an elephant's rump. Aaron believes the play can be more sophisticated than that, especially if one is willing to search between the lines.

Noting that Ludlam intersperses the jokes with cunning literary references, many to Shakespeare, Aaron said: "Sophisticated audiences will be hip to the allusions. Even the broadly sexual jokes are filled with clever double-entendres. In the tradition of Shakespeare, Ludlam wrote for a disparate audience. A general one will enjoy the physical humor, a more sophisticated one will get the nuances. In some ways, I see Ludlam as a cross between Moliere and Benny Hill."

* The Laguna Playhouse production of "The Mystery of Irma Vep," by Charles Ludlam, opens tonight at 8 at the Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Through June 19 (Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2). $13 to $20. (714) 497-9244 or (714) 494-8021.

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