I AM NOT WHAT I AM: Dressing in drag turns gender roles upside down in the theater— and beyond.

This article appears in the program for The Mystery of Irma Vep.

Danny Scheie as Lady Enid in The Mystery of Irma Vep. Photo by Kevin Berne.


By Keith Spencer

Most of us have, at some point in our lives, tried on clothes of the opposite gender. For many of us it happens in a childhood theater experience, dressing for a role. For others it happens in normal childhood play, as it did with me; one day, after kindergarten, when a girl and I swapped clothes in the playroom for curiosity’s sake. After observing myself clad in an ill-fitting, flower-pattern dress, in her mother’s full-length mirror, I felt a strange taboo sensation wash over me, as if I had been caught with my hand in the cookie jar. For actors of any level, theater offers the opportunity to play as someone other than ourselves: for a brief staged moment, we get to experience what it might feel like to be the Prince of Denmark, or a poor flower girl, or, as in The Mystery of Irma Vep, several different characters ranging from a nobleman to an Egyptian princess. For many actors this is a lesson in empathy, in that we learn to relate with people radically different than ourselves by stepping into their skin. Yet sometimes, actors discover that they’re more comfortable in who they become on stage, than who they are off.

Long before the modern struggle for LGBTQ civil rights, theater offered an escape, a means of performing as the person many actors felt, deep down, that they were. Only in the 20th century did intellectuals start to think of gender itself as a taught performance. In the 1980s, Berkeley professor Judith Butler developed a theory of gender performativity, theorizing that both sex and gender were an edifice, constructed by culture. Masculinity and femininity, and their associated behaviors and symbols, were not inherent traits; rather, they were inventions of culture, and learned ones at that. Hence the strange uncomfortable feeling I experienced when trying on a dress at age five: I was performing outside of the gender I’d been told I was. This idea of life as a performance, akin to acting, is not new: As Jaques mused in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” On the Elizabethan stage of Shakespeare’s era, women were not allowed to be actors—meaning the first performances of Shakespeare’s plays in England featured all-male casts. Imagine the multiple layers of meaning in, say, Twelfth Night, where a woman (Viola), played by a male actor, pretends to be a man, Cesario, in the context of the story. One can see how a queer actor—struggling with conflicting identities that were not acceptable in Elizabethan society— might find respite in such a role.

Recently, the headlines have been full of stories surrounding the idea of gender as an artifice, not an inborn trait, with different sexualities being even more accepted in progressive communities like the Bay Area. This has led to major progress in civil rights, such as this summer’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide. However, before identities like gay, transgender, gender fluid, and gender variance were well on their way to becoming socially accepted, drag performance was used—and still is—as a means of questioning gender and sexuality conventions, and satirizing the rigidity of gender roles. Why is it exactly that we find drag so funny? Perhaps it’s because the way we are taught to perform and adhere to gender roles is so uncompromising that it can be a relief to recognize it as a farce, a constructed world at which we can play. Or maybe it’s because deep down we know the whole premise of gender is absurd. Charles Ludlam, playwright of The Mystery of Irma Vep and a gay man himself, certainly saw the potential of theater to enact alternative identities. Supposedly, one of his college professors told him he was “too effeminate” to make it as an actor. He did so anyway, and shortly after college began a career as a playwright, director, and actor, founding the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in the West Village. Ludlam’s 1984 play The Mystery of Irma Vep—which requires two male actors to play eight characters, both male and female—went on to become his best-known and most-produced. While previous plays of Ludlam’s were well-known within the gay theater scene, Irma Vep was unequivocally a mainstream success. Though privately ambivalent, Ludlam himself seemed pleased at the success of Irma Vep, and the success of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. He once explained his theatrical style as such: “I think the distinction between gay theater and what I do, which some people call ‘queer theater,’ is that gay theater is really a political movement to show that gay people can be admirable, responsible members of the community… I don’t do that.”

Reading between the lines, Ludlam’s point seems to be not that he is apolitical, but that he depicts queer identities in a way that normalizes them. Playing off queer themes for laughs rather than politics attests to the way that queer art was on its way to becoming more conventional, even in the 1980s. If then the theater doors were wedged open just far enough for Ludlam’s queer theater to become mainstream, it is telling how much we’ve progressed since. Queer characters of all stripes grace television and movie screens, so much so that seeing a gay or trans character on the screen no longer causes a to-do. Ludlam, no doubt, would approve.


Keith Spencer is a freelance writer and graduate student, currently pursuing a PhD in Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Formerly publications manager for Cal Shakes, he has written about gender, class, and sexuality for Jacobin, Dissent, and PopFront. He will be giving four pre-show Grove Talks in mid-August prior to The Mystery of Irma Vep, where he will talk more about gender performativity and comedy.


Ask Philippa: The Mystery of Irma Vep edition

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo courtesy Philippa Kelly.

In The Mystery of Irma Vep, the very name of which is its own kind of riddle, Charles Ludlam uses parody, vaudeveille, melodrama, satire, and horror to re-cast the history of the classic plays and movies he knew and loved very well. Written initially as a showcase for himself and his partner Everett Quinton, the play would go on, four years after Ludlam’s untimely death, to be Ludlam’s most famous play, and, indeed, the most performed play in the American theater. The glossary I’ve attached here will answer many of your questions—and I’d love to respond to further questions and thoughts that you have.

Please leave your questions in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.

Irma Vep Glossary

Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).You can email Philippa at pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

Buy tickets for The Mystery of Irma Vep, or subscribe to the 2015 Season, by clicking here; or, call the Box Office at 510.548.9666.




Coming Next: The Mystery of Irma Vep

Liam Vincent and Danny Scheie get their silly on. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Come and celebrate Jonathan Moscone’s final show as Cal Shakes’ Artistic Director with tickets to Charles Ludlam’s 1984 romp, The Mystery of Irma Vep. High, low, and above all, absolutely fabulous comedy converge at a sinister English estate, where Lord Edgar and his nervous new wife, Enid, find themselves haunted by werewolves, ghosts, a vampire, and Edgar’s mysterious ex-wife, Irma Vep.

In an unparalleled theatrical feat, Cal Shakes favorites Danny Scheie and Liam Vincent (who brought audiences to their feet in last year’s The Comedy of Errors) will make 35 costume changes to play eight different characters—ranging from a nobleman to an Egyptian princess—resulting in a gender- and genre-bending tour de force.

Irma Vep is a hilarious send-up of a medley of different styles and sources, specifically, Hitchcock’s thriller, Rebecca, Brontë’s dark romance, Wuthering Heights, and Noël Coward’s otherworldly comedy Blithe Spirit. As Moscone said about directing Ludlam’s most popular play, “I’m so happy to get some silly on at the Bruns.”



Ask Philippa: 2015 Pre-season Edition

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo by Richard Friedman.

The 2014 Season has just barely ended, and already we’re preparing for 2015. We have an incredible array of artists and plays lined up for the 2015 Season, and I can’t wait to see you all tumbling out of the grove next season with your digestibles and into our beautiful amphitheater.

While Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone has written a letter about the 2015 Season, here’s a brief overview of the Main Stage season:

Twelfth Night
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Christopher Liam Moore
May 27–June 21

Director Christopher Liam Moore (Cal Shakes’ Lady Windermere’s Fan) is renowned for being able to delve into comedy, romance, and language with humanity and élan. Now he’s opening our season with Shakespeare’s comic masterpiece of mistaken identity, in which shipwrecked twins navigate across a strange island to find love—and each other.

Life Is a Dream
By Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Translated and Adapted by Nilo Cruz
Directed by Loretta Greco
July 8–August 2

This stunning Spanish Golden Age classic that’s been called “the Spanish Hamlet” tells the tale of a prince imprisoned by his father at birth because of a prophecy. Magic Theatre’s Loretta Greco directs a brilliant translation and adaptation by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Nilo Cruz, who brings urgency and accessibility to Calderon’s mythic, poetic play, where reality and dreams collide in a story of human will battling fate.

 The Mystery of Irma Vep
By Charles Ludlam
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
August 12–September 6

Lady Enid is haunted by the spirit of her husband’s ex-wife, Irma Vep—but that’s just the beginning of her problems. Mummies, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and other surprise guests pursue the numerous characters played frenetically by only two actors, including the fabulous Danny Scheie in a gender-bending tour-de-force performance. Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone (Pygmalion, American Night) takes on Charles Ludlam’s outrageously ingenious comedy.

King Lear
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Amanda Dehnert
September 16–October 11

At the beginning of Shakespeare’s King Lear, an old king asks his daughters to deliver love in return for slices of land. A cataclysmic scene ensues, at the end of which Lear (via hubris? Naivity? The foolishness of age?) is thrust out into the world with almost nothing that’s ever had value to him—without his land, without his familiar duties and prerogatives, and, most importantly, without his most precious daughter. He goes on an epic journey to finally (and fleetingly) experience the redemption of love, and, indeed, the redemption of a self.  Nationally renowned director Amanda Dehnert—whose credits include the groundbreaking 2011 production of Julius Caesar at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival—directs two-time Tony award nominee Anthony Heald as Shakespeare’s profound tragic hero.

As 2015 draws near, I’d be delighted to answer any artistic or dramaturgy questions about what’s in store for next year. Curious about cast, themes, creative choices, or anything else? Ask Philippa! Please leave them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.


Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

Subscribe to the 2015 Season by clicking here, or call 510.548.9666.