"The Mystery of Irma Vep"
Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
If it ain't broken, don't fix it. So the saying goes. This truth happily applies to "The Mystery of Irma Vep," which has just resurfaced here in Connecticut. This production, with its same performers, director, designers, ran successfully last year at Hartford Stage, and has now been brought out of semi-retirement, dusted off, and remounted at Long Wharf.
"A penny dreadful," as it is called, takes us on a roller coaster ride that never falters. Director Michael Wilson and players Jeffery Roberson and James Lecesne never miss a beat. The two actors appear and reappear with lightning speed, emerging each time as a different character in a different costume (four apiece). It is amazing sleight-of-hand, or rather sleight-of-body. Clearly, the army of dressers backstage are working overtime. How is it accomplished? "With lots of Velcro," the actors say.
Yet the actors manage to differentiate each character. Roberson' s rubbery face can take on an infinite number of goofy expressions for each character-and each character at different times (for instance, Lady Enid, innocent young bride, morphs into Lady Enid, vampire).
It is a spooky ambience, way over the top, thanks to Joe Pina's non-stop sound effects, Rui Rita's eerie lighting, Alejo Vietti's outrageous costumes, and the Gothic set of Jeff Cowie. But, of course, never to be taken seriously.
"Irma" borrows unashamedly from the novel "Rebecca," as well as Shakespeare, Ibsen, Edgar Allan Poe, and numerous vampire tales and English Gothic novels. ("Irma Vep" is in fact an anagram for "vampire.") Werewolves, ghosts, crippled domestics, ancient Egyptian sarcophagi, howling wolves, secret rooms, mysterious deaths, madness, menace, mayhem are all on hand.
As to the story: Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Lecesne) has brought his young bride (Roberson) to the family manor Mandacrest, located in the gloomy English countryside. (The fact that the girlish bride towers over her husband is only one of many sight gags.) The manor is dominated by both the menacing housekeeper ("Jane Eyre"?) and a portrait of the former wife Irma Vep leering above the fireplace ("Rebecca"?). Lord Edgar is also an Egyptologist, who takes off to the Middle East to solve ancestral mysteries (while his wife is ensconced in a lunatic asylum)…And so it goes.
"Irma Vep" is also laced with sexual innuendos. While the double entendres are just throwaway lines, adding to the fun, the main business at hand is the quick change of costume and persona. Lecesne and Roberson are hilarious in their many roles, but particularly in drag. Roberson, a great hulk of an actor, manages a delicious girlish falsetto and coy mannerisms as the ill-fated Lady Enid. And Lecesne, though inches less in height, stomps about wonderfully as the arrogant Lord Edgar.
Playwright Charles Ludlum, who launched the theater of the ridiculous in the late 1960's (naming his own troupe the RidiculousTheatre Company), created this send-up of the scary story. Though Ludlum wrote numerous pieces, this is the one to endure. And understandably so. It is a masterpiece of its kind.
-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 18, 2004