It’s ironic that when yours truly ventures out into the real world, it would be one of the first shows I’ve seen since the pandemic and the last show of 2022 for Diversionary: “The Mystery Of Irma Vep”. In fact, it’s the first time I saw the new restructured lobby of the theatre and the much spoken of new and comfortable seats. What a grand time I had watching two superlative actors, playing eight characters in Charles Ludlam’s “The Mystery Of Irma Vep."
|LHJ and BB|
No one can accuse Charles Ludlam of not being different. I say that not to malign the man, but in praise of the man. Anyone who can come up with the ideas he has come up, which are truly genius (as he has been called by some), comes off as a little loopy. His works are camp ‘representations of traditional work’ and his ‘gender bending performances as Camille or Maria Callas among others, are legendary’.
The Mystery of Irma Vep: ‘A penny dreadful’, now in production at Diversionary on Park Blvd. through Dec. 24th is a Gothic thriller starring Bryan Banville and Luke Harvey Jacobs dressed in drag playing no less than eight (it seemed like more) different characters acting out, clearly, Ludlam’s Vampire (wink, wink) thriller.
There are werewolves, howling wolves, vampires, ghosts and mummies thrown into the mix to scare the wits out of us. And sometimes they do come as a surprise in this great production. There is also a throw away limb or two, an oil painting (of the now deceased Irma Vep) that bleeds out of one eye, a series of squeaks, shrills, storms that rage and a combination of automated and self -inflicted props that work and some that don’t work among other things. (Evan Eason)
Most movie buffs will see it as both a satire and a farce poking fun at the Victorian melodrama vaguely resembling Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film version of Daphne du Maurier’s romantic novel, ‘Rebecca’ with all roads leading to Mandacrest and surroundings.
Charles Ludlam was an American actor, director and playwright, born in 1943, Early on he was out of the closet and never shunned away from the negative reviews of the mainstream theatre critics who accused him of founding a theatre as ‘gay theatre for a cult audience’.
He founded the Ridiculous Theatrical Company where he was able to showcase his talent for the gothic yet more serious side of his nature. Even though he taught and staged productions at NYU, Conn. College for Women and Yale (commedia dell’arte) and won four Obie Awards, the last two before his death due to complications from having the HIV infection, he is generally remembered by his most popular play “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”
It opened in 1984 off-off Broadway in New York’s Greenwich Village produced by Ludlam’s company, Ridiculous Theatre Company. Ludlam was Lady Enid and others and his partner Everett Quinton was Lord Edgar. It went on to win a Special Drama Desk Award (cast and crew) and the two performers won the 1985 Obie Award for Ensemble Performance. It’s a rapid-change tour de force style that might leave you breathless even before the end of Act I.
The story takes place in the 1880’s at the home of Egyptologist Lord Edgar Hillcrest (BB) who has just arrived home with his new wife Lady Enid (Luke Harvey Jacobs). Staring down at them in the living quarters of the Hillcrest mansion is a portrait of the former Lady of the house, Lady Irma Vep (anagram for vampire).
|Luke Harvey Jacobs as Lady Enid|
His long time housekeeper, Jane (BB) does not like the intrusion one bit and has no intention of making the new Lady at ease. Then there is Nicodemus (LHJ) the one legged (his other is wooden) groundskeeper/ swineherd who has a long history with both the family and Jane. Each has their secret and both know all the family secrets of those living, past and present, at the estate!
The actors go back and forth alternating their (not necessarily in order) characters with amazingly speedy costume (Brooke Kesler) and dialogue changes to move the story forward. While the plot, if you will, to uncover what really happened to Irma Vep rambles (it’s a bit too long after the initial setup) along the lines of a whodunit mystery, with the obvious staring us in the face.
|Bryan Banville as Jane Twisden and others|
Between directors Matt M. Morrow and Allison Spratt Pearce and along with an assortment of stage-hands, chaos is made to look like organized mayhem. With the theatre’s wide stage every seat in the theatre is a good one. Needless to say, almost every inch of the stage, with the two making use of the isles (or not) in the theatre, no one ever knew whose lap either one of them might land, was utilized.
|LHJ and BB|
That said nothing could detract from the talent of both LHJ, a big guy, who inhabits the Lady Enid role as easily as the hunchbacked, limping and disheveled Nicodemus. He is a hoot with his miraculous fast costume changes. When he comes on as Lady Enid with his perfectly coiffed updo’s (Peter Herman) in frilly gowns, flowing, feminine sleep attire in one scene, and as the resurrected Egyptian mummy appearing and walking away from the sarcophagus in Act II, you just want to howl (pardon the pun) out loud. Timing, they say is everything in farce, and they’ve got it down pat.
Banville, who is spot on perfect as prissy Jane and ‘I haven’t got a clue of what’s going on in my mansion’s Lord Edgar, he never flinches. As Jane she/he is steely and menacing, just the opposite of the clueless Lord Edgar. (In another life Banville has appeared in many musicals, and if you’ve never heard him sing, make haste to the next musical he’s in.)
The whole setup is too funny to miss...
And I love Farce, don’t you agree?
Dates: Through Dec. 24
Organization: Diversionary Theatre
Phone: 619 220 0097
Production Type: Farce/Tour de force
Where: 4545 Park Blvd., University Heights
Ticket Prices: Start at $20.00
Photo: Peggy Ryan