Following an excellent run of Lend Me a Tenor, Bay Street Theatre presents Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, opening on July 2. The campy homage to everything from Alfred Hitchcock movies to iconic Bette Davis moments stars two men playing 16 different roles in an intentionally melodramatic Victorian farce about a man whose wife has been kidnapped by a mysterious, otherworldly figure. By the end of the wackadoo story, audiences will have witnessed vampires, werewolves, Egyptian queens and more. Directed by Kenneth Elliott and starring Tom Aulino and David Greenspan, all of whom have a prior history with the piece, Bay Street’s production is no normal regional theater revival. Talking with Elliott, Aulino and Greenspan about Ludlam, the play, their careers and more confirmed that this production is going to be something very special.
“Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start,” Elliott smiles, breaking the ice around the small round table as all four of us laugh knowingly. To take the director’s advice, let’s start at the beginning with the fascinating story of this play and learn a bit about the man responsible for one of the most successful plays of the 1980s. The late Ludlam, a Long Island native who was raised in Northport, was a major force in the off-off-Broadway theater scene in the late ’60s and was a highly influential theater artist until his AIDS-related death in 1987. The Mystery of Irma Vep debuted in 1984 with the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Ludlam’s downtown Manhattan troupe. Ludlam starred in The Mystery of Irma Vep with his longtime lover Everett Quinton, who later served as the Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s Artistic Director following Ludlam’s passing.
Greenspan, also a playwright and director, first performed in Irma Vep 18 years ago at the Cleveland Playhouse. “My professional career started in ’78. I acted in a few plays and wrote some plays and acted and directed those,” he explains. “Ken and I had an amazing experience working on a revival of The Boys in the Band.” Aulino, meanwhile, met Elliott as an undergraduate—“We’ve known each other for at least 10 years!” he wryly exclaims—and has acted and directed over the years, including directing a production of Irma Vep. Aulino received a degree in performance pedagogy and teaches at Auburn University in Alabama when not working regionally or in New York.
“It’s interesting to work with two actors who have worked on this play before in separate productions,” Elliott notes. “We sometimes get in rehearsal a bit of ‘I did it this way!’ or ‘Well, I did this!’ and we sort of split the difference and it works out really well.” The three have an easy rapport with each other, which all three believe is vital to the production.
Elliott and Aulino also went to school with and are close with playwright, actor and director Charles Busch, another Ludlam-alum, whose work has been produced on Broadway, off-Broadway and in film. Busch, whose Ludlam-esque comedy Vampire Lesbians of Sodom ran for five years off-Broadway, has a different writing and performance style than Ludlam had, but is influenced by the raucous, “anything goes” flavor Ludlam’s work is beloved for.
While many of Ludlam’s plays were considered to be “gay theater”—a broad label usually given to more thematically serious works like The Boys in the Band or The Normal Heart—Irma Vep managed to break into the mainstream and was more interested in telling a fun story than pushing any sort of agenda. Aulino, who worked both with Ludlam and Quinton, notes that the material and thematic content in this intensely funny play is touched by the AIDS crisis, which was reaching a fever pitch in the mid-’80s; but Aulino points out that instead of painting a bleak picture of a culture under siege by a frightening and unknown source, Irma Vep is a “celebration” of the resilience and hopefulness of the gay community.
Summer theater seasons—especially on Long Island—usually feature broad, “safe” works that have immediate name recognition and wide appeal, which makes Bay Street’s production of The Mystery of Irma Vep all the more exciting. The play contains some innuendo-laced dialogue and racy situations, but all are done in a broad and silly style, making this piece appropriate for most audiences. After talking with these three talented men, I can’t wait to see the magic unfold in Sag Harbor.
“The Mystery of Irma Vep” runs July 2–28 at the Bay Street Theatre. For tickets and more information go to baystreet.org or call 631-725-9500.