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The Mysteries of 'Irma Vep'

John Fleck and Tony Abatemarco celebrate the outrageous legacy of playwright Charles Ludlam, a proponent of over-the-top camp--for all ages.

January 25, 1998|Diane Haithman | 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."

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."

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.

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."

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