Here at the University, theses about drag queens are no surprise. A thesis performance in drag, on the other hand, is a bit of a rarity. Such is the case, however, with next week’s senior thesis performance of “The Mystery of Irma Vep” in the ’92 Theater, starring Mark McCloughan ’10 (it’s his thesis) and Jaime Maseda ’11. “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is a British farce directed by Professor of Theater Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento. Despite a hectic rehearsal schedule, McCloughan was able to answer some of our questions about “Irma Vep” by e-mail.
Argus: What, exactly, is “The Mystery of Irma Vep”? What should audiences expect when they come to see the show?
McCloughan: “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is a camp spoof of Victorian thrillers and melodrama, written by Charles Ludlam. The play is a high-energy farce that features multiple characters, all portrayed by two actors. So, between us, Jaime Maseda ’11 and I play a British lord, his wife, their two servants, an Egyptian guide, an ancient mummy brought back to life, a werewolf, and a mysterious masked intruder. Audiences can expect to see amazingly quick costume changes, lots of drag, a werewolf attack, a thrilling chase involving a meat cleaver, a virtuosic interlude of dulcimer-playing, and a heartfelt ending straight out of classic cinema.
A: What is your thesis about? Why (and how) did you choose “Irma Vep”?
M: The written portion of my thesis is about “Camille,” a play Ludlam wrote in 1973. Based on a French novel that also inspired the opera “La Traviata,” the play featured Ludlam as a female lead. Obviously, by 1970 drag performance was common, but Ludlam’s approach to it was anything but. Using acting techniques grounded in psychological realism, he impressed critics and audiences alike with the sincerity of his performance as a woman. In my paper, I discuss drag queens in the late 1960s and early 1970s and how these performers often reinforced traditional ideas about gender expression. I then examine how Ludlam’s approach to acting in drag both expanded traditional notions of ‘appropriate’ casting in American Theater and placed him in the vanguard of an emergent queer theatre aesthetic.
A: What are some of the specific challenges you’ve faced as an artist working on this show?
M: This show is a challenge, both from an acting standpoint and a technical one. Both of us have to create many distinct characters, so we’ve worked a lot on both accents and physicality. This can get confusing, especially when we have to leave the stage as a male character and enter five seconds later as a female. Sometimes it takes a few lines before the correct accent kicks in, but it’s something we’re working on. The show is also pretty difficult technically. Since some of the costume changes have to happen in just a few seconds, all of the costumes have to be rigged so that they can be taken off and put on really quickly. Theater professor Leslie Weinberg and her crew have done a great job designing them, and we have Jessica Jordan ’13, Dylan Marron ’10, and Anthony Smith ’11 acting as a three person costume change team. When one of us exits a scene, they meet us backstage, rip our clothes off, put us into another costume, and push us towards our next entrance. It’s really quite an advanced operation.
A: What have some high and/or lowlights of the production been for you?
M: The highlight of this production has really been the entire rehearsal process. The script is really just such a gift to actors, because it frees you from worrying about whether or not you look strange or silly. The point of it is to be silly and stupid and over-the-top. Reviews of a lot of Ludlam’s shows describe his aesthetic as “very good bad acting,” and that idea has been incredibly fun to explore. Our director, theater professor Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento, has been helping us discover how we can be the best bad actors we can. I’ve had so much fun working on this performance that it’s hard to pick a favorite moment. I know that sounds super cliché, but it’s really true.