The Mystery of Irma Vep delivers laughs, surprises, and reams of frilly dresses
Ladies and gentlemen, hurry, hurry, hurry: come see a fabulous, fantastical tale of love and death, fear and trembling, pride and prejudice, queen bees and wannabes, dumb and dumber, angels and demons, Bonnies and Clydes, Thelmas and Louises, gods and monsters, hustles and flows. On the stage here tonight you will see: a man whose consuming love for his late wife threatens to destroy his marriage to a new blushing bride. (Shock!) You will see: a woman driven to extremes by her love for a man she can never have. (Gasp!) You will see: a mummy. (The horro—what?) That's right, you will see: murder, mayhem, and . . . Egypt? Hurry, hurry, hurry, step right up to the greatest show onstage--at this theater, on these nights.
In short: Everyman Theater's current production of Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep is the most fun you can have indoors right now without having to go to confession immediately afterward. Under the direction of Everett Quinton, the late Ludlam's creative and life partner who performed in Irma Vep's 1984 debut by the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, this production is a nonstop laugh-fest peppered by invasions of the paranormal, shots fired in the dark, bleeding paintings, dueling dulcimers, an offstage camel, hidden rooms, and tales of bloody carnage so riotously dramatic you're not sure to laugh or cringe. (Actually, you can't help laughing.) And steering this entire ship of foolishness are two actors bringing to vibrant life seven characters over three acts. It's a pair of athletic performances that make you feel like you've just survived nearly two hours of hot yoga.
Irma Vep takes place at the Mandercrest manor in stereotypical rural Victorian England, where the family of Lord Edgar (Clinton Brandhagen) has been descending for years. The estate is overseen by the maid Jane Twisden (also Brandhagen) and stableman Nicodemus (Bruce R. Nelson), a limping peg-legged man with a fierce Cockney accent and an even fiercer set of teeth. Lord Edgar recently remarried the young actress Lady Enid (also Nelson), a former actress who wants to be a proper lady but who Jane sees as more of a common opportunist: Lady Enid is all blonde tresses and anxious energy, which makes her feel as tightly wound as a Pomeranian.
And she has good reason to feel a bit out of sorts in the house. Lord Edgar's widow, Lady Irma, died under strange circumstances a few years back, and she—in the form of a comically severe painting hanging above the fireplace—still maintains an odd presence over the home. Lord Edgar makes Jane keep a candle lit on the mantle in front of the painting, he feels a little off kissing Enid under her eyes, and the painting, well, just looks creepy. Nobody feels that comfortable under the evil-eye stare of Lady Irma.
The painting is only part of the manor's thorny welcome for Lady Enid. It's the sort of place where strange things are afoot and go bump in the night, where wolves howl and prowl the grounds, where an intruder breaks in and accosts Lady Enid, and where—in one of many statements of the obvious that this play tweaks—people are not always who they appear to be, or are not only who they appear to be.
And very quickly, all hell breaks loose—and Irma Vep is really only part way through its first of three acts. To say anymore would spoil both the plot and the experience, for Ludlam's manic two-hander is as much about how what happens happens as it is about what happens. It's subtitled a "penny dreadful"--as in, those cheap, serial Victorian melodramatic novels that were the soap operas of their day--and it mirthfully embraces the form. But Ludlam also appropriates-qua-throws in a kitchen sink of wry references and allusions, from Wuthering Heights to Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, from the works of Henrik Ibsen and James Joyce to Edgar Allan Poe and William Shakespeare. The name in the title itself is borrowed from an early cinema serial from Louis Feuillade. And this production even includes musical snippets with tunes you'll name in a few notes.
Keeping this madcap comedy chugging along are Nelson and Brandhagen, who often sprint from one character to another. Each actor finds a way to give each of their characters identifiable voices, walks, mannerisms, and, miraculously, senses of humor. Brandhagen is a touch spinster/marmish as Jane and Robert Donat-dashing as Lord Edgar, and Nelson moves from being Lady Enid the timid lass one moment and caterwauling Nicodemus the next, a man who feels dug up from a Charles Dickens novel. In fact, at one point Nelson pulls off the acrobatic feat of a conversation between Lady Enid and Nicodemus. That's one of many, many instances where the sheer physical rigor required to realize the play becomes a part of the experience itself, and such a laughing-because-it's-just-funny moment on opening night led to a near riotous pause where Nelson's delivery made Brandhagen almost imperceptibly stifle the urge to laugh.
Such is the peril of delivering this joyously absurd farce so well: the jokes and wit come in such ceaseless waves that there's nary a chance to catch your breath. And the effort extends through the creative/production team—scenic designer Jim Fouchard, lighting designer Colin Bills, costume designer David Burdick, sound designer Chas Marsh, wig designer Anne Nesmith, fight choreographer Lewis Shaw, stage manager Amanda Hall. This The Mystery of Irma Vep is a two performer play relying on a on-the-dime backstage crew hitting all the light, sound effect, prop, costume change, etc. marks and cues to keep it moving along at such an breathless pace.
Does the whole thing make believable sense? Not even the faintest lick—but neither does an episode of The Simpsons, an example of the sort of zinging comedy that Irma Vep pulls off. Of course, that's an animated program created by teams of writers, artists, and actors. Irma Vep stirs up that level of anarchy live onstage, in a highly choreographed production spotlighting two men running an acting triathlon.
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