The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful by Charles Ludlam. Directed by Aaron Mark. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Bill Bowers and Tom Hewitt; photo: Emily Faulkner
"Sometimes, I think, I am wonderful. . . "
Lycanthropy, lust, Egyptology, vampireism, Rebecca, Gaslight, romance, madness ala Jane Eyre, and more combine in Charles Ludlam's play, "The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful" first seen in 1984 in Greenwich Village in a production by the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. It starred Ludlam and his companion and compatriot Everett Quinton, each playing a variety of roles in this Victorian-styled romance of Lady Enid Hillcrest, a former actress now the second wife of Lord Edgar Hillcrest whose first wife, Lady Irma, died under suspicious circumstances near a foot-bridge involving wolves, their young son Victor, and a mysterious stranger wandering the moors around their home. Lady Enid is disliked by her husband's housekeeper, Jane Twisden who, Mrs. Danvers-like (think Rebecca), leads Lady Enid into a clothing misdemeanor that threatens to kill her husband's love for her. Meanwhile, Lord Edgar falls in love with a mummy more than 3000 years old and his servant, Nicodemus Underwood, woos and maims just about every woman his wooden leg can carry him to in the neighborhood of Lord Edgar's family seat, Mandacrest.
If by now you have gotten the idea of what you're in for, let me add this: Laughs abound, situations are hilarious, characters are humorously drawn and heaven to watch. Every few years someone, locally, does a production of this play and it always works, even when non-professionals perform it. This is, in part, because of the lightning costume and character changes. Though the play features four women and four men all eight of them are played by only two actors. Using a British quick-change technique that includes wigs, facial hair and makeup, the two actors on stage in Stockbridge at the Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage run the gamut from frantic to becalmed and never miss a beat (even a few long-held ones) and never run amok. These actors are solid character creators and the work they deliver in this double tour-de-force is nothing short of everlastingly delightful.
Even if you've seen other actors (or actresses) in these roles, Tom Hewitt and Bill Bowers are just plain terrific. From Bowers' effete Lord Edgar to his buxom Jane Twisden the man is in complete control of his various characters. Likewise the crippled and maimed Nicodemus is an amazing counterpoint in Hewitt's hands to his Lady Enid the actress second wife who keeps wanting to chat with Nicodemus which, in a very clever moment, is noted as not possible by Bowers' Jane. The cross-dressing costume and character changing becomes first a wonder to watch, then a timing situation as people glance at their watches to see how a long a change might take. and finally a well-worn routine that no longer amazes though it still often amuses.
On a wonderful Victorian/Edwardian set designed by Randall Parsons, and in costumes that make the remarkable differences to the character designed by Wade Laboissionniere the actors disport under the perfect lighting created by Alan C. Edwards. Brendan Doyle's sound design work includes the original music by Our Lady J and if there is a bit too much of it, just consider this a live and in person movie with a soundtrack.
Director Aaron Mark is clearly the brain behind the stage visions here. He gives simple transport to the traditions of this play and has obviously worked closely with each artist involved here from the sound to the stage manager just to keep this play moving while making sense. Mark seems to know where to draw the line against exaggeration also. With a script as over the top as this one, and as corny to boot, it takes a smart combination of director and actors to draw our attention from the mundane to the exceptional. This production has that in spades.
Favorite moments include the magical transformation of the mummy into a burlesque-queen Egyptian princess, the discovery of the madwoman (Jane Eyre's Rochester's Jamaican bride is the inspiration here) by Lady Enid, and the gradual revelation of werewolf and vampire identities.
This season opener is a highly worthwhile experience if your tastes run to the eclectic or the outrageous or the fantastic. Take inventory of your memory before you go, and bring along a big helping of love for the fare of Hammer films, for Ingrid Bergman histrionics, for Judith Anderson melodramatics, for Danny Kaye take-offs on the British "Carry On" comedies (if that could have ever existed). Take a drink, too, for you may find that a little nip helps you sustain yourself through the laughter that brings on tears.
The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful runs through July 19 at the Berkshire Theatre Group's Berkshire Theatre Festival Fitzpatrick Main Stage on Route 7 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go to their website at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.