It's a joke, people
Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep just might be too smart for its own good. Or at least too smart for San Antonio audiences, if opening weekend's Sunday matinee is any indication. The production had two vocal critics: Alamo Theatre Arts Council Globe Award judges speaking just a little louder than necessary, presumably to assure we all heard and were impressed by what they clearly considered to be their clever, theater-insider critiques.
What seemed to escape them is that Irma Vep (originally subtitled "a penny dreadful") is a well-known example of a genre, Theater of the Ridiculous, that rose to prominence in the 1960s and '70s, and that Ludlam is one of the literary lights associated with the style.
Ludlam was a member of the groundbreaking Play-House of the Ridiculous, formed in 1966, before starting his own rival troupe called The Ridiculous Theatrical Company. As leader of The Ridiculous, Ludlam became the loudest evangelist and most innovative practitioner of the style, which Performing Arts Journal editor Bonnie Marranca has described as:
... an anarchic undermining of political, sexual, psychological and cultural categories, frequently in dramatic structures that parody classical literary forms or re-function American popular entertainments. A highly self-conscious style, the Ridiculous tends toward camp, kitsch, transvestism, the grotesque, flamboyant visuals and literary dandyism. Its dependency on the icons, artifacts and entertainments of mass culture in America - the "stars," old movies, popular songs, television, and advertising - make the Ridiculous a truly indigenous American approach to making theatre.
But most fun of all is watching the actors mock the quick-change convention while simultaneously doing a wonderful job of fulfilling it, wallowing in over-the-top bad-acting-on-purpose, and making references to their own plight throughout. Annella Keys and Ryan Jeanes do an excellent job of skillful, knowing, self-parody supported by director Greg Hinojosa's thoroughly Ridiculous direction and Stephen Montalvo's campy, Gorey-esque set design.
The whole point of Theater of the Ridiculous is that it's so bad, it's good - a point those professing to "judge" theater in SA ought to know. But when said judges can only describe the commedia del'arte style of their previous night's entertainment - A Company of Wayward Saints at the Vexler - as "like minstrels doing improv," it seems the Ridiculous may have a hard time finding a home on local stages. The conventions it mocks are already too well-entrenched in the audience. •