Charles Ludlam's "The Mystery of Irma Vep," which opened at Center Stage last night, is a corny, campy, melodramatic horror story in which two actors, often in drag, portray eight characters (a few of them dead).
Suffice it to say that Center Stage patrons have never seen anything quite like this frequently tasteless, always unsubtle, generally hilarious production.
"Irma Vep" is the directorial swan song of the theater's longtime artistic director, Stan Wojewodski Jr. Granted, this play -- written by the late founder of New York's Ridiculous Theatrical Company -- might seem an unusual parting gesture. But in an important sense, it is a thoroughly fitting one.
For, like much of Mr. Ludlam's work, "Irma" exults in -- indeed, openly exploits -- its own theatricality. The minute you enter the Head Theater -- which is arranged as a send-up of a Victorian opera house and embellished with X-rated cupids -- you have a good idea of the tension, at once silly and grandiose, behind the production.
That tension characterizes everything that follows: Hugh Landwehr's wonderfully kitschy sets, Robert Wojewodski's exaggerated costumes, and, especially, the fervor with which Derek D. Smith and Wil Love go about the task of quick-changing in and out of eight different roles, as many accents and heaven knows how many costumes and wigs.
The mere sight of Mr. Love dolled up as the unsuspecting lady of Mandacrest Manor -- an English estate possibly plagued by a werewolf -- would be enough to provoke laughter. His less-than-lovely Lady Enid has a bust large enough to fill the stage almost by itself (and a derriere to match). Later, when he plays an ancient Egyptian princess, he wears false ears larger than Prince Charles'.
But what's particularly funny about his portrayals -- and these include a hunchbacked, peg-legged manservant -- is the sincerity he brings to them. This seems somewhat less the case with Mr. Smith,who is just fine as the strutting lord of the manor, but lacks a degree of femininity as his loyal housemaid.
What's the plot of "Irma Vep"? Well, the gothic story seems less consequential somehow than its plagiarized patchwork spirit -- a mishmash of bad puns, double entendres, horror movies and quotations from such highfalutin sources as Shakespeare and Ibsen.
But you don't have to catch the references to have fun, you just have to love theater -- at its grandest and most artificial. "Irma Vep" could almost give bad taste a good name.
"The Mystery of Irma Vep" continues at Center Stage througJune 16; call 332-0033.