Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of "The Mystery of Irma Vep" at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, published by EDGE Philadelphia

What’s a play filled with werewolves, ghouls, vampires, mummies, and feisty cross-dressing Victorian romance doing in a Shakespeare Festival? In Charles Ludlam’s 1984 off-Broadway hit, The Mystery of Irma Vep, the answer is doing what the Bard did best in his own time - packing houses with a play that’s as wildly entertaining as it is original. Initially spoofing the Hitchcock film Rebecca, Irma Vep’s "plot" centers around Mandacrest Estate, home to the newly married Lady Enid, the second wife who mysteriously sleeps all day, and Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist still recovering from the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of his first wife, Ms. Irma. The staff - a prissy maid still attached to Ms. Irma, Edgar’s first wife, and gluttonous swineherd Nicodemus complicate the new arrangements through their conflicting desires to serve the household’s new mistress, or not, as the case may be. This staple of Victorian melodrama only serves as the backdrop for the bizarre occurrences that come to plague Mandacrest - the appearance of the vampires, werewolves, and spirits, any one of which may or may not be the presumed dead Ms. Irma, or her presumed dead pet wolf, Victor. Edgar flees these torments-both psychological, human, and undead-by travelling to Giza, Egypt, where he discovers a resuscitating mummy that he brings back with him to Mandacrest as one more surrogate for his dead first wife. It’s self-admittedly silly, dishing out one last parody of the genre in the senseless, quickly wrapped up collusion of loose ends. The humor holds the appeal in this play, and even the title becomes one more joke to exploit - a punch line that winks at the audience no less-as Irma Vep is an anagram of the word vampire. The humor ranges from sexual innuendo ("how do you take it?" followed shortly after by "your tea, Miss"), double entendres, cute cultural references (including Janet Jackson’s Superbowl wardrobe mishap), and the, while harping mostly on the campy artificiality in its spoofs of horror films and Victorian novels. An occasional bit of clever wit threads its way through the evening, reminding of Monty Python ("how old is the family?" rejoined by "I don’t know, they’ve been descending for centuries"), and other lines provoke laughter simply because they’re intentionally insufferable, as Lady Enid remarks, "it’s intolerable to marry an Egyptologist and find out that he’s hung up on his mummy." Here, the delivery counts for everything, and these actors do not disappoint. Chris Patrick Mullen, elicits laughter from the moment he walks in, playing the role of the snooty, yet devoted maid Jane Twisden in full drag, with a wig the size of his head and a fey accent that dribbles lines like "when hell freezes over and little devils go ice skating." Brad DePlanche struts in, belly-first, as the swineherd Nicodemus, sporting a goofy, pointy Mohawk and buck teeth, wagging his tongue after crude jokes, some of his lines barely audible from the laughter generated by just his facial expressions alone. Beyond the extraordinary comedic talent displayed by Mullen and DePlanche, the evening’s most entertaining (and difficult) challenge requires these two actors, through a series of quick costume changes and perfectly timed entrances and exits, to play all eight different roles. Here director Jim Helsinger delivers the solid backdrop of staging that allows both DePlanche and Mullen to effect all these changes quickly while never missing a line, even accentuating some of the quickest changes with opportunities for humor. At one of the dozens of stage cues, DePlanche hovers at a doorway as Lady Enid, feigning to weep in order to cover his mouth and speak the lines of the now "offstage" Nicodemus, lines that no one could hear through the incessant audience laughter. Given the two stages available for the PSF productions, Helsinger couldn’t have avoided staging this play in the round without severely diminishing the number of seats available in the smaller Arena Stage. But he could have avoided the unfortunate blocking that too often set both actors facing inward at center stage. Their close talking or whispering at these points, while maybe vital to the script, shielded everyone who didn’t sit in the center section from seeing DePlanche’s or Mullen’s facial expressions - a real loss here, as much of the humor stemmed from their contorted, goofy, or harried pantomime. This one minor, but irritating glitch aside, every aspect of the production contributed to the hilarity of the evening. Bob Phillips surrounded a Victorian parlor with evenly spaced hieroglyphic-covered tiles that made the play seem like some twisted place of banishment on a board game - a bizarre jail for actors in Ludlam’s imagination. Steve TenEyck’s eerie lighting design framed Mandacrest’s exterior with crackling thunderbolts (although someone forgot to raise the Mandacrest chandelier, which then hung inside an Egyptian pyramid during Act II), while Matthew Given’s sound design adroitly punctuated repeated phrases with organ beats in a mock inspiration of terror, and chimed in hysterically when referencing Indiana Jonesand Ghost. However, Lisa L. Zinni’s costumes and wigs provided the real treat, both in terms of technical functionality and contributions to the play’s hilarity, particularly the overinflated bust of the revived mummy that threatened to smother DePlanche, and the towering wigs that threatened both actors with whiplash. Building upon their successful trend of two actors in multiple roles from last year’s Sleuth, PSF has crafted a production here that’s a real blast to watch. While the humor isn’t necessarily of my favorite breed, silliness well done by an impressive cast still entertains wildly. I enjoyed the clever touches the most, especially the set change from Act II’s Egyptian locale back to Mandacrest Manor, where four stagehands appear dressed as mummies to move the furniture, only to suddenly break out into the dance interlude from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. Whoever chose that, cast these actors, or chose to stage this play, made this production into a two-hour laugh fest that’s well worth attending.

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