Quick Change Comedy

The thing about camp, darling, is that it is ultimately a very serious business. Under the pretext of fun, camp sends up conventions. It criticizes through love and subverts through affection, survives through wit and celebrates through outrageousness -- all the while displaying soul, since it seeks to exorcise malign influences. Camp lampoons value systems by taking those value systems so much to heart -- an embrace-cum-bear hug -- that they become ridiculous.

No one was better at camp than Charles Ludlam, founder of Greenwich Village's The Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Before dying of AIDS in 1987, Ludlam completed 29 plays; at their best, these flamboyantly self-conscious oddities tickle the ribs, and elbow them, and stick to them, too.

His signature work, The Mystery of Irma Vep -- which received its Houston premiere in 1987 at Stages Repertory Theatre -- is now being revived for laughs at the Alley Theatre. Vep is a gothic amalgam of high and low culture, melodrama, phantasmagoria, slapstick, satire, parody, farce and -- of course -- drag. For Ludlam, camp's coup de theatre, not to mention its coup de grace, was shifting roles by shifting clothes; camp was nothing if not a way to explore psycho-sexual boundaries. In sublimely affected ways, Vep looks at gender by bending it: in a series of delirious quick changes, two male actors play all roles, male and female.

Lord Edgar Hillcrest, a renowned Egyptologist, brings home a garish new wife, Lady Enid. These roles are played by different actors. Jane, Lord Edgar's strange housekeeper (played by the actor who plays Lord Edgar) doesn't much take to Lady Enid. "I can't bear the sight of her in a grave," she spews at Lady Enid about the first Madam Hillcrest. "She was always afraid of the dark." Lady Enid finds a protector in the groundskeeper, Nicodemus (played by the actor who plays Lady Enid), who turns out, however, not to be all that he seems, since he's a werewolf. When asked about his appearance on a particularly meaningful night, he says, "I'm in remission, since a cloud passed over the moon."

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Though Lord Edgar is in love with Lady Enid, he's haunted by the memory of his apparently dead first wife, Irma Vep. Lady Enid tries to live with her husband like sister and brother, but soon demands, in histrionic fashion, "Which means more to you? Your love for me or your promise to her?" Lord Edgar replies by extinguishing the flame he has kept lit in Irma's memory.

Soon after, Lady Enid starts to become pale. Lord Edgar is convinced this is because Irma has come back as a vampire. So off he goes to Egypt, to try to uncover the mystery of his first wife. By play's end, after numerous other plot twists and numerous allusions to such references as Dracula and Edgar Allen Poe, all is not necessarily happily ever after.

At a moment particularly fraught with danger, Lady Enid cries, "Where is Nicodemus? I want to have a word with him." Of course, this isn't possible, since one actor plays both parts. This tongue-in-cheek aspect is one of the Alley production's main entertainments. The pleasure in quick changes is how fast they occur, and over the course of the play, they should become more and more split-second. At the Alley, they do. An actor in full drag on one side of the stage reappears moments later as a male on the other side; even better, one character wanders off-stage, telling another to run, run, run, and then emerges, breathlessly, as that character. Most ingeniously, physical transformations occur on-stage, behind duvets, trap doors, curtains. And at one point, it seems as if Nicodemus is actually comforting Lady Enid -- i.e. himself -- right in plain view.

Laughs are also elicited by numerous sight gags, ranging from a book popping out of a faux-bookcase to the characters popping out into the audience during their Egypt trek to comment about a playgoer, "There's a relic." At every turn of the screw, sound man Joe Pino supplies a spoofy howl, whinny or toll, his background music nicely exploiting old-time Hollywood. Jeff Cowie's scenic design is also shrewdly over-the-top: a crass, ruffly, purple grand drape with yellow fringe rises to reveal a humorously overdone living room with two-story French doors and gaudy wallpaper.

If there's a problem with the production, it's that it's too funny. It's all about largesse: director Michael Wilson asks his actors to make grand, purposeful gestures. He also opted to mount the show on the Alley's large stage, which, one would think, would allow for towering moments of fear, tragedy and romance. Sadly, such moments are lacking. The production lacks big emotions of any kind. While in one sense, this is no big deal -- because the actors are oftentimes in drag -- in another sense, this is a very big deal -- because the actors are in drag for a reason. The Alley production doesn't even hint at that reason, which deals both with sex-role socialization and homosexuality. The play should feel slightly dangerous as well as funny, but at the Alley it feels as we're watching descendants of Milton Berle.

That means Jeffrey Bean and John Feltch, the Alley company members playing the multitude of roles, are, at best, two-dimensional. Still, as Lady Enid says, "any man who dresses up as a woman can't be all bad." The Alley production isn't bad at all. But because it's merely a romp, it's not at all as good as it could have been.

The Mystery of Irma Vep plays through February 4 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.

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