What with one thing and another, I haven’t been able to comment on the theatrical scene lately. I saw three shows this past month that really deserve comment, however, and two of them are still running. So, however briefly, here’s the comment.
If you love “Rebecca,” or Dracula, or The Carol Burnett Show, then The Mystery of Irma Vep is the play for you, a thorough sendup of Victorian (and pseudo-Victorian) gothic and Hollywood’s (particularly Hitchcock’s) screen translations thereof, in the true Burnett style. Charles Ludlam, the late author, dubbed his theater ridiculous, and that’s exactly what it is – not absurd or surreal: ridiculous. And director Everett Quinton, having appeared in the original production, is in the best position to understand the distinction – and he does.
A two-man cast, Arnie Burton, Robert Sella, play seven characters, most of them women, and cycle through them at a whirlwind pace (at one point, Burton even plays opposite himself). Costume designer Ramona Ponce deserves a medal, but the dressers who have to help the actors execute those quick changes deserve bigger ones; at least they got to join the curtain call.
What these wonderful actors are doing isn’t exactly acting – it’s play-acting. But it’s the most extraordinary, energetic and inventive play-acting, self-aware without ever being smugly so. They aren’t winking at the audience in order to trick it into letting its emotional guard down (a common strategy at least since Urinetown); they are sharing an enthusiasm.
Which reminds me of what Susan Sontag said about camp, of which this play is an exemplar:
Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.
Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.
The works being mocked are not bad works – and they are not ruined by being sent up. Indeed, quite the opposite; you can feel the extremity of gothic emotions more fully if you don’t have to take the works entirely seriously.
The Mystery of Irma Vep plays at the Lucille Lortel in New York through May 11th. [Full disclosure: I'm on the board of Red Bull Theater, which produced the show.]
* * *
David Ives’s extended foray into verse comedy may also be a variety of camp – if so, it’s a particularly high variety. Ives has an almost uncanny ability to compose rhyming couplets, and his signature trick is to wed classical form to contemporary idiom, thereby demonstrating that verse still works – and works the way it always did – if it sings in a language we speak. This is an eminently worthy project, but nobody wants to go to the theater to listen to an eminently worthy project, so I should stress: it’s invariably also very funny, and more often than not quite moving as well.
His latest, The Heir Apparent, an adaptation of a play by Jean-François Regnard, currently running at Classic Stage, is the slightest of Ives’s three forays in this mode (the others – that I’ve seen – are The Liar, based on Corneille’s play, and School For Lies, based on Molière’s The Misanthrope) – less moving, but still funny. The play revolves around an old miser, Geronte, nearing his deathbed, due to make a will; needless to say, relatives are circling like vultures, one of them – a bankrupt nephew, Eraste – especially determined to flatter his way into his uncle’s heart so that he can win the hand of his lady love, Isabelle. His plans are foiled initially when Geronte decides to wed Isabelle himself, and thereby get a new lease on life. Getting those plans back on track involves a variety of farcical business, mostly orchestrated by the inevitable tricky servant, Crispin.
It’s a frolic, enlivened especially by a warmly-felt performance from Paxton Whitehead as Geronte, and by the manic energy of Carson Elrod as Crispin. But the play lacks the cumulative quality of truly great farce, and is too willing to flatter the audience to work as satire. Ultimately, we never forget that these people are just playing. In the season of Thomas Piketty, perhaps we can take this scenario seriously again? That might actually make it more deeply funny.
The Heir Apparent plays at Classic Stage through May 11th.
* * *
Finally, my last entry you cannot see any longer, as it’s closed, and unfortunately you’re unlikely to get another chance any time soon. Paula Vogel’s early play, And Baby Makes Seven is a strange creature, and rarely revived for that reason. But, having managed to see it at the New Ohio Theater last month, in a lively production directed by Marc Stuart Weitz, I feel it deserves more – and better – attention than it’s generally received.
The play revolves around a decidedly modern family: a lesbian couple and their gay male friend, flatmate, and sperm donor. So why isn’t it called And Baby Makes Four? Well, because the two women, Ruth and Anna, are – inhabited by? possessed by? just in the habit of pretending to be? – three young boys. Ruth (Susan Bott) takes turns playing Henri, the French boy from the movie, “The Red Balloon,” and a feral creature named Orphan who mostly expresses himself by snarling. Anna (Constance Zaytoun), meanwhile, plays Cecil, a precociously intellectual little man who seems, initially, to be merely the insufferable expression of her own superiority, but who turns out to have some actual wisdom to impart.
The man, Peter (Ken Barnett), doesn’t have an alter ego and, at the start of the play, is getting quite worn out with having to deal with the three boys – particularly since Ruth’s “kids” seem to be getting more and more out of hand. He’s particularly concerned that they drop the act before a real child comes along, as one will very shortly. And so a pact is made: we’ll kill off the imaginary children one by one, making room in the home for a real child.
The publicity and dramaturgical material talk about Vogel being ahead of her time in depicting a gay (and plural) family, and it is reasonable to read the play-acting as children in the light of once-favored theories of sexual development that held that gay people were “arrested” at an earlier developmental stage – and Peter’s anxiety as ultimately about being whether he can be a father if he’s gay. But none of that is what I actually got from the play. I agree that Vogel’s play is ahead of its time, but what it connected with for me is the curious relationship we – or some of us – have with childhood, and the need to hold onto it, the need to nurture one’s inner child very explicitly. It shows up everywhere, and in a variety of forms, from Dave Eggers to Wes Anderson to Lena Dunham. The games Vogel’s women play are very twee – but twee is a thing now.
The explicit message of Vogel’s play, articulated by Cecil on his deathbed, is: don’t be afraid to play with your children. The implicit suggestion is that we can’t do that if we don’t remember how to be children ourselves. We need to nurture our imaginary lives not only for our sakes but for theirs.
Is that true? I’m not sure. But it’s advice big swathes of our culture – in Brooklyn where I live, at any rate – have already taken, and that, in many ways, I’ve taken myself. And so far, the kids seem to be all right.