Charles Ludlam's satirical style, lovingly referred to as "theater of the ridiculous," has been inspiring Kenneth Elliott's directorial career for decades, as can be seen through his many collaborations with drag legend Charles Busch including the cult classic horror parody Psycho Beach Party. Yet, The Mystery of Irma Vep, opening off-Broadway at the Bay Street Theatre on July 2, will in fact be Elliott's first crack at a Ludlam text.
The Mystery of Irma Vep satirizes Hitchcock horror films, Victorian melodrama, and several iconic literary works, all within a thrilling mystery story. Cross-dressing is ensured with two actors (Tom Aulino and David Greenspan) playing a whopping total of eight roles, both male and female. Elliott took some time before rehearsal one day to explain the mechanics behind this whirlwind of a show and to share the secret to being perfectly ridiculous.
So what has the rehearsal process been like so far?
It's the first time I've had the full cast come to the first read-through with the script memorized. They did their homework — partly because they've both done it before. Tom Aulino has played the roles he's playing three times and David Greenspan did his roles eighteen years ago at the Cleveland Playhouse. The play is in part a quick-change act and they have to walk off as one character and come back completely redressed as another in split seconds. Knowing how to do that in advance gives us a leg up.
Have there been any major quick-change disasters yet?
There have been little train wrecks. (laughs) But that's what rehearsal's for.
How much room is there among all of the mechanics for you to put your own signature on it?
There are many, many ways to interpret the text. On the surface it might seem appropriate to really ham it up and mug the audience and do a lot of cheap jokes. And certainly there are elements of cheap theatrics to the script itself. But at the same time, you have to believe in what you're doing and tell the story. My goal with the production is to get as many laughs as possible but also to scare the audience — to really tell the story so the audience finds [it] engaging and not just the burlesque of the quick-change act and the corny jokes — which is certainly there and certainly important, but that's just part of it. It's a very rich play. It's got so many layers and I think my job as director is to bring as many of those layers out as possible.
What are some of the layers audiences should be looking for when they see the play?
The play originated in Ludlam's theater at One Sheridan Square in 1984 at the height of the AIDS crisis when things looked most dire, and there are certainly elements of that that can be found in the text even though it's not directly mentioned. And of course he wrote the play for his partner, Everett Quinton, and himself to perform together. In that sense the play is kind of a love story as well, and I certainly want to bring that out. I don't want…to make the play sound more complicated than it really is, because it certainly can be enjoyed as a lighthearted mystery story with a lot of laughs, but it's also a lot more than that, I think.
I saw you wrote a book review of Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam back in 2004. Has Ludlam been an influential figure in your career?
He was certainly influential. I moved to New York in the fall of 1979 and I saw almost everything that Ludlam did until he died in 1987, so I [am] certainly…a huge fan. And then I was a cofounder with Charles Busch of a company called Theater-in-Limbo and we were very much inspired by Ludlam and his company. The plays that we did, first in the East Village and then off-Broadway — things like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party and Lady in Question — were all a variation of this style called "theater of the ridiculous."
You also directed a production of Dracula at Rutgers in 2009. I see a trend of vampires in your career. (laughs)
Vampires are fun. I don't want to belittle vampires. (laughs)
So what is it about Ludlam's theatrical style that you find so appealing?
The heightened theatricality of it is really fun and the facility Ludlam had for mining so many elements of high culture and popular culture and trash and crafting them into one coherent piece…He called the process by which he worked "cultural recycling." We've made all sorts of discoveries in this rehearsal process. Tom (Aulino) was just rereading Ibsen's Ghosts and said "oh my gosh, the first scene of our play is identically reproduced from Ibsen's Ghosts dialogue!" And we were having our read-through…and there are absolutely verbatim quotes from James Joyce's Ulysses that I wasn't aware of at all. We're continually finding these surprises.
What do you think is the key to directing "camp" well?
To me the key is belief. That's the key to acting in any style for me. If the actor believes what they're doing, they can get away with highly theatrical gestures and moments. If they're making fun of the material, you can't get away with it. You have to be in the story and have to believe what you're doing. Charles Busch and I used to talk about this years ago and the point that we used to make when we did what were called "movie spoofs" — and I think that's a slightly condescending term for the plays that Charles Busch wrote, but they were often referred to that way — Charles and I did not want to make fun of the film that we were so-called "spoofing." We wanted to be in them. We wanted to be in that world. And I think if you want to be in the world, this kind of material will work. If you're commenting on the world, it doesn't work so well.