Published in Gay and Lesbian Times November 07, 2002
Werewolves and vampires and mummies, oh my!
There’s a triple humor-whammy in watching “The Mystery of Irma Vep.” First, there’s the sheer brilliance of the performances, as two actors portray eight characters, both male and female. Then, there’s the neck-snapping speed of the costume changes, which inevitably induces you to ask, ‘How did they do that?’ And finally, there’s the intellectually titillating thrill of identifying the myriad literary and film references: everything from Shakespeare to Conrad to DuMaurier, from Jane Eyre to Baby Jane.
The madcap comedy is the most famous product of the Theatre of the Ridiculous, and it certainly lives up to its namesake. Hailed as one of the best plays of 1984, by both the New York Times and Time Magazine, the gothic spoof was a perfect embodiment of the wit and wackiness of creator/star Charles Ludlum. It features his signature mix of parody, satire, farce, vaudeville, and melodrama. Ludlum’s dramatic manifesto was “theater without the stink of art.”
The plot may be preposterous, and the silliness relentless, but the laughs are unremitting. Set in Mandecrest Manor on the English moors, the play contains a bevy of crackpot characters. There’s Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist who, still obsessed with his dead wife, brings his new bride, the skittish Lady Enid, home to his gloomy, haunted estate. Enid is resented by the suspicious swineherd Nicodemus and housekeeper Jane. The sight gags and complications pile up faster than the costume changes — which is mighty speedy indeed. There’s a hint of political commentary and a whiff of Western imperialism, not to mention an uplifting message of liberating oneself from one’s past. But no one has the time to stop and analyze; this is a rapid-fire romp of epic proportion.
A tour de force for two actors, the play was originally performed by Ludlum and his partner, Everett Quinton. David McBean and Farhang Pernoon are brilliant in their fast-paced, gender-bending transformations. No one in San Diego makes a more irresistibly feminine female than David McBean. As if he didn’t amuse and astonish us enough last winter in the North Coast Repertory Theatre production of “Pageant,” he’s even more outrageous and uproarious here, mastering the hiccupy cockney of Nicodemus, who hysterically battles with himself as he metamorphoses into a werewolf before our very eyes; he’s prissily ear-piercing with the high-pitched wails of the terrorized Lady Enid (who also sings, thereby treating us, if only for a moment, to McBean’s glorious, melodious voice). In a flash, he becomes the money-grubbing Egyptian tomb-guide and the mummified Egyptian princess. Pernoon is his ideal match, aptly macho as the wife-addled Lord and angst-ridden as the titular, tortured Irma. He and McBean play off each other perfectly, and their little orgasmic sexual moment is side-splitting.
The production depends on technical wizardry, but not of the electronic sort, though David Weiner’s Gothic set, replete with rotating bookcase, is a wonder, and Chris Rynne’s lighting and George Ye’s sound provide impeccable support. It’s the costumes — an array of velcroed marvels by Shulamit Nelson — and the dressers who quick-change them that make the show fly. Legend has it that the late-great Ludlum came up with an ending to his piece just one day before its first public performance in a Greenwich Village basement — but he had to add another fifteen costume changes to achieve it. The three backstage dressers are so appreciated that they get to take a curtain call, too, and they swiftly demonstrate their clothing-exchange artistry.
Director James Saba moves the proceedings at an amazingly antic-frantic pace, and the hair-trigger timing is flawless. Best of all, the piece isn’t camped up, but is played (pardon the expression) straight, which makes it all the funnier. “Irma Vep” may be low comedy, but it’s highly hilarious.
“The Mystery of Irma Vep” runs through December 21 at Diversionary Theatre on the edge of Hillcrest; 619-220-0097.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.