“The Mystery of Irma Vep” by Charles Ludlam is many things: it’s a campy satirical comedy; a haunting melodrama; a suspenseful thriller; a touching love story and a sometimes scathing, but often funny, commentary on the social mores of the early 80.
The two-man show, which gets its name for a character in the 1915 French movie “Les Vampires,” is a dead giveaway for lovers of anagrams. It’s also a “penny dreadful” play that’s obsessed with death. There’s the dead wife of Lord Edgar Hillcrest, the titled Irma Vep, their dead son, Victor, an assumed dead wolf of the same name, an Egyptian mummy named Pev Amri and a few other not-quite-alive characters.
Set on the moors of Mandecrest and in the depths of an Egyptian tomb, the play tells the story of Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist who has yet to recover from the tragic death of his first wife, and Lady Enid, his second wife, Irma. The goings on of the uppity maid, Jane, and lowly stableman, Nicodemus, also contribute greatly to the plot.
All sorts of outlandish and supernatural happenings are afoot. Not to spoil the fun, but the theatrical hijinks involve “living” painting, a vampire, a werewolf and a mummy.
What’s so fun about this “ridiculous theater” genre play is that it works on so many levels. People of all ages and walks of life could see it and enjoy it, and yet still take completely different experiences with them as they leave the theater.
Peeling the layers back on the action and the subtext is, of course, half the delight. Other components that add to the enjoyment of this cheeky entertainer, directed Kenneth Elliott, are the three dozen or so lightning-quick costume changes made by stars Tom Aulino—who plays maid Jane Twisden, Lord Edgar Hillcrest, and more—and David Greenspan—who plays stableman Nicodemus Underwood, Lady Enid Hillcrest, and others—and the wonder of the inventive stage by John Arnone.
Highlights for this reviewer (as well as other audience members on Sunday night who oohed and ahhed at the dexterity of the actors) included the numerous super-quick costume changes and seemingly impossible entrances, which occurred across stage from exits made only seconds before. The bit in the second act with the ropes was also quite ingenious and loads of fun.
It’s also quite obvious that the actors are both seasoned pros, riffing and mugging their way through the over-the-top antics of their multiple characters. Heck, just remembering all the lines in a two-man/multiple character play is hard enough but these guys looked like they were having a blast, which always adds to the good times.
A fast-paced show such as “Irma Vep” is nothing without lots of support behind the scenes. Kudos also to producers Gary Hygom, John Sullivan and Tracy Mitchell, choreographer Barry McNabb, lighting designer Mike Billings, costume designer Mark Mariani, prop designer Kathy Fabian, hair designer Gia Pluma, stage managers April Ann Kline and Elizabeth Schiavo, and sound design by Aural Fixation. The show was cast by Stuart Howard and Paul Hardt.
Bottom line: One of the best examples of “ridiculous theater.” A treat for theater lovers of all stripes.
“The Mystery of Irma Vep” stages at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor through Sunday, July 28. Showtimes are 8 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays. Tickets start at $57.50. For reservations, call 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.