The Mysteries of ‘Irma Vep’

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Everyone was pleased to see that the wolf had arrived. Even though the thing resembled a cross between a stuffed teddy bear and a very old bathroom rug, this wolf would do quite nicely as one of the many oddball props for “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” the comedy / horror whodunit by Charles Ludlam opening this weekend at West Hollywood’s newly remodeled Tiffany Theaters on Sunset Boulevard.

Delivered to the stage by one of the production’s technical personnel before a recent preview performance, and dropped there with a thud, the wolf--to the amusement of onlookers--was even anatomically correct, unlike poor Barbie and Ken. The outrageous animal is perfect for an over-the-top piece of theater by an artist whose motto about art--and life--was: “Less is less.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 8, 1998 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 8, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Music credit--A Jan. 25 story erroneously stated that the original production of “The Mystery of Irma Vep” had no music. Peter Golub wrote original music for that production as composer in residence at the Ridiculous Theatrical Company.

After a 20-year career as the artistic director, playwright and star of off-Broadway’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Ludlam died of complications from AIDS in 1987, at age 44. Before his death, he’d written and starred in more than two dozen comedies, including “Irma Vep,” “Bluebeard,” “The Ventriloquist’s Wife” and his own hairy-chested sendup of “Camille” (Ludlam’s women often were men, and frequently--as in the case of “Camille”--Ludlam).


The actor / playwright described his elaborate productions as “ensemble playing which synthesizes wit, parody, vaudeville farce, melodrama and satire, giving a reckless immediacy to classical stagecraft.” His collected works inspired a fierce, highly literate cult following in New York, particularly in the gay community. Critics called his work something deeper than mere vamp and camp. “Ludlam was not a mere imp,” wrote Los Angeles Times critic Dan Sullivan after Ludlam’s death. “He was an actor, puppeteer, ventriloquist, playwright, designer--a total man of the theater.”

Ludlam wrote “Irma Vep” as a tour de force for two actors--himself and his longtime collaborator and companion, Everett Quinton--playing a total of seven characters in a story set in the Gothic gloom of Mandacrest on the moors and various locations in Egypt. Movable set pieces represent the moor on one side, Egypt on the other.

The original “Irma Vep” had no music; Ludlam left an unfinished song which was never used. For the Tiffany production, Peter Golub added to Ludlam’s music and wrote lyrics in Ludlam’s spirit.

Directed by Randee Trabitz, the two actors are John Fleck, a performance artist perhaps best known for being among the members of the “NEA 4” who successfully sued the National Endowment for the Arts over the issue of censorship, and Tony Abatemarco, a prominent local actor-writer-director who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to the late Ludlam.

Fleck was seen last November by L.A. audiences at the Mark Taper Forum’s New Work Festival in his self-scripted “the end of me” (an “ongoing revision” of his one-man show “me”), and he was a series regular, playing Louis Heinsberger, on Steven Bochco’s canceled “Murder One” on ABC. In “Irma Vep” he portrays Jane Twisden, Lord Edgar Hillcrest and An Intruder.

Abatemarco’s many TV, feature film and theater credits include sharing the stage with Fleck in “Plato’s Symposium” at the Powerhouse Theatre. He plays Nicodemus Underwood, Lady Enid Hillcrest and Alcazar.


No one knows who will portray Irma. It’s a question mark in the program.

After welcoming the wolf to the cast, Fleck, Abatemarco and director Trabitz used their pre-performance dinner break to talk about why they chose to take on a work so strenuous it leaves both actors sweat-soaked by the end, with multiple costume changes that can require going from a dress and wig to a man’s suit in a matter of seconds. They’ve each lost three pounds, they say, just from rehearsing. “Ludlam’s actors used to use rolls of paper towels to blot themselves during the show,” observes Fleck.

Both actors were attracted to the precision required to create Ludlam-esque mayhem onstage. “Everything but the kitchen sink, he brings in!” exclaims Fleck.

“You are constantly on the stage,” adds Abatemarco. “We play four or five different characters each, so it’s really like condensing four or five years of work into just a few months.”

They also leaped at the chance to work together again. “There are a lot of standard repertory actors who could handle this, I think,” Abatemarco says. “But for me, the excitement of getting to work with John is, I know the level of rawness that he can achieve in his work, and that I sometimes aspire to in my work.

“Even though I’ve had this classical training, I love to get dangerous, and John does that better than anyone I know. [The idea that] we could really shake the cage made me very, very excited.”

Says Fleck: “And in terms of Charles Ludlam and Tony, I mean, to me, Charles Ludlam is synonymous with Tony, in terms of the look, in terms of the acting ability, and the amount of theatricality.”


Which leads to the question of why Ludlam’s love of the overtly theatrical, cross-dressing and camp has come to be called “gay” theater, especially since none of the characters in the play are gay. “What is the difference between gay and just a big farce for the whole family?” Fleck asks rhetorically. “Unless you define camp as a gay experience, so to speak. But why? Because men are playing women? Benny Hill did that, too.”

“Right. [Ludlam’s] politics were very, very internal, and by that I mean, he wasn’t blatant about his politics,” agreed Abatemarco. “I think his idea was to get ideas across through the art, and not necessarily by bludgeoning you over the head with dogma.

“You know, as sort of pompous and hyperbolic as it sounds, Charles Ludlam would have been a court playwright,” Abatemarco continued. “In a time that supported the arts differently, I think he would have been elevated to the proper level of respect.”

On this particular evening, Abatemarco was bringing in students from a theater class for senior citizens that he teaches at Santa Monica College. “I’ve got 65-and-over students coming over the next few days, and I think it’s appropriate for children,” he says. “I think they’ll have a ball. I think it crosses all lines. It is a wild entertainment.”

Yet director Trabitz, who has read many of Ludlam’s essays in preparing to direct the show, said that it was Ludlam himself who was adamant about identifying his work as “gay.” “I think he defined camp as being an inside joke, and in his essays, he got kind of snippy about that--saying that camp has been taken over by the heterosexual world, and it doesn’t make sense anymore. . . . I think what happened is, when it got mainstream, the associations became derogatory, that camp is somehow cheesy, or tawdry. It doesn’t have to be any of those things.”

At the time of his death, Ludlam was just beginning to flirt with mainstream success. He had just won an Obie Award for sustained excellence in the theater and was preparing to stage Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” for Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park (the play was postponed when he was admitted to the hospital a month before his death). He died without ever seeing his own performance in the 1987 film “The Big Easy,” which opened in summer of that year.


Observed Trabitz: “His theater is closed down, fallen on hard times, [even though] his partner [Quinton] tried to keep it going. It is very sad. And so, I think, his legacy exists as a writer. He was such a good writer. He was an extraordinary actor and an extraordinary director; he really did it all--but he is gone.

“I just want it to be fun. He wrote, ‘I am just happy to be alive, and to have an audience.’ It just killed me when I read it--I thought, well, one out of two.”


“THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP,” Tiffany Theater, 8532 Sunset Blvd. Dates: Wednesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends March 22. Prices: $24-$27. Phone: (310) 289-2999.