The Mystery of Irma Vep billed itself as a penny dreadful. In it, newlywed Lady Enid arrives at Mandacrest, the English manor house of her husband Lord Edgar. She expects a life of bucolic splendor, but instead she falls headlong into a nightmare. Edgar’s late wife, the titular Irma, still haunts the grounds, and she’s none too happy that a new bride is attempting to usurp her place. Poor Lady Enid is mortified; what vengeful spirits has she unwittingly bestirred? For solace, she turns to the housemaid Jane. But Jane is a surly old crow reminiscent of Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, unable to comfort Enid because of the twisted love she still bears for her dead mistress. Meanwhile, Nicodemus, the butler, stomps about the chilly old house on a wooden leg — a replacement for one lost during an unfortunate interlude with a werewolf — spouting ill omens and tales of a murdered child. When Lady Enid attempts to unlock the many secrets of Mandacrest, she learns that even Lord Edgar is not who he seems. Is he willfully attempting to drive his second wife mad? (Cue the organ music!) Before it all comes to a suitably blood-soaked conclusion, our heroine has fought off wild dogs, exposed vampires, and even detoured as far away as Egypt to conceal herself inside a fourteenth-century sarcophagus. (Don’t ask.) The play’s influences were many: Daphne du Maurier, Matthew “The Monk” Lewis, Hammer Film Productions, and the French Grand Guignol. Careening from arch drawing-room comedy to Vincent Price horror flick, the writing navigated genres with the same deceptive ease as a ship’s captain navigating the high seas.

The stagecraft was simple but ingenious: the set was peppered with trap doors, hidden mirrors, and surprise passageways. But the show’s chief, virtuosic pleasure? Two actors played all the parts. One happened to be the playwright himself, Charles Ludlam. In a wig and plunging neckline (revealing his hirsute décolletage), his Lady Enid swept onto the stage with all the authority of Lynn Fontanne. As Nicodemus, he’d lurch across the stage in his prosthetic, comic wisps of hair dancing over an otherwise bald scalp, his eyes as wide and incredulous as a lemur’s. He articulated each character with hilarious precision by elevating his voice an octave or screwing his rubber face into a wholly new profile. (I blushed to recall that I attempted the same trick once, in humbler circumstances, in front of Bruce’s camera. Now I was getting a master class.)

Even in my youth, I knew Ludlam was that rare, indispensable creature: a bona fide clown. Not of the cloying, circus variety, no, but a clown in the tradition of Bert Lahr or Charlie Chaplin, consummate artists who can make us laugh uproariously at our own foibles and in the same instant break our hearts.

Ludlam’s partner in crime (and later, I would learn, his longtime lover) was Everett Quinton. He not only kept pace with his formidable costar, he’d designed all the costumes, too. He’d exit stage right as Lord Edgar in his morning coat and cravat, only to reenter stage left as Jane in her immaculate apron and maid’s cap. Mr. Quinton was a master not only of comic timing, but of Velcro.

Along with the rest of the audience, Bruce and I laughed until our ribs ached; but our reaction was more profound then mere amusement. For the first time in our lives, we felt truly at home.

Maybe it was the hilariously two-dimensional set; hand painted with its many booby traps, it didn’t look so dissimilar from the flats Bruce and I had painted back in Texas for the senior play. Maybe it was the gleeful, unabashed cross-dressing. Maybe it was the coded gay references that glittered in the text like so many hidden jewels. Whatever it was that made us feel such acute belonging, we knew one thing: when the curtain call ended, we couldn’t bear the thought of going. Leaving the theatre after a peak experience is always a wistful affair; but we sat in our seats for a long time, too smitten to even stand.

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