There's been a lot of water under the bridge since Charles Ludlam and his companion Everett Quinton first staged "The Mystery of Irma Vep" in 1984. The cross-dressing mash-up of gothic melodrama, horror and farce was the late Ludlam's masterpiece and the only one of his 29 plays to enter mainstream theater consciousness.
In 1991 "Irma Vep" was the most produced play in the United States, in part no doubt because the two- person cast was cost- efficient for theaters, but also because its constant upending of sexual roles was fresh and edgy in many parts of the country.
While the new Sacramento Theatre Company production catches what it can of Ludlam's dated lunacy, the play often falls into the category of "that joke isn't funny anymore." The play is written for two actors of the same sex to portray eight different characters, though I've only seen men do the show. Making reference to Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca," werewolf stories and a general English gothic excess, the story intentionally borders on the ridiculous, yet Ludlam always took the work quite seriously, and it needs meticulous performances to succeed.
Buoying up the production whenever possible are the game team of Greg Alexander and Benjamin T. Ismail. Alexander, who also directed, is one the region's most talented comic actors and a master of subtle reaction. Alexander mainly plays Jane Twisden, the mysterious housekeeper, and Lord Edgar Hillcrest, an Egyptologist. Alexander took over the role late in the rehearsal process after an ankle injury sidelined Aaron Wilton, the actor who was originally scheduled to play the part.
Ismail has become an invaluable asset in local theater as a multitalented, multitasking presence, acting, directing and even Web designing for a cross-section of theater companies. Ismail's major roles here are Nicodemus Underwood, the salty, wooden-legged groundskeeper, and Lady Hillcrest, the new wife of Lord Edgar. Ismail's improvised asides added a sense of lively fun to the production, which gets a good deal of mileage from the actors' numerous quick changes of costume and character.
The story, such as it is, really doesn't matter as much as the experience, which is more about the upsetting of conventions than telling a narrative. Those conventions are fairly distant now, though, and while there's some fun to be had, the point of "Irma Vep" was made a long time ago.
THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP
★ ★ 1/2
What: Charles Ludlam's self-proclaimed "penny dreadful," a mash-up of gothic and modern horror stories
When: Continuing at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and 12:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Dec. 16
Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, 1419 H St., Sacramento
Information: (916) 443-6722, www.sactheatre.org
Time: Two hours and 10 minutes including one intermission.