June 18th – July 19th, 2015
The Mystery of Irma Vep
Dare to Uncover the Truth
Brilliant writing, high camp and Gothic horror combine to make this outrageous ‘Penny Dreadful’ lyrical, satirical and vampiracal.
PORT TOWNSEND — Key City Public Theatre’s production of “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is about 90 percent inspiration, and 90 percent perspiration.
The math doesn’t work out, I know. But just about everything else about KCPT’s take on Charles Ludlam’s comic-camp cluster does.
Director Amy E. Sousa’s mounting gets all the details right, down to the last tuft of werewolf fur, and provides an environment of equal parts mirth and mystery wherein two actors playing eight parts can hambone to their hearts’ content, using every inch of the creative space Ludlam’s story leaves for them.
Ludlam provides the inspiration: A Gothic whatdunit that lampoons a number of film and stage genres and cliches, at the same time as it manages much more cohesion as a story than should be possible.
The perspiration? That comes from Seattle actors John Clark and Curtis Jacobson, who’ve camped out in Port Townsend to subject themselves to all the physical and mental abuse that go with “Irma Vep’s” multiple characters and dialects, massive line load, flashbulb-quick entrances, exits and costume changes and about as much physical exertion as Tiger Woods experienced in 36 holes at Chambers Bay — all in the less-than-air-conditioned splendor of the little playhouse.
They both get an “A” for effort … and for their characterizations, accents and their knack for knowing when to just do the play and when to … play.
For such a broad premise — Lord Edgar (Clark) and his new lady wife Enid (Jacobson) have to bludgeon their way through an obstacle course of werewolves, vampires, mummies and ghosts to find happiness at Mandacrest Estate — much of the humor in “Irma Vep” is subtle stuff. Clark delivers a punchline as Jane, the estate’s housekeeper, but the real fun comes from the way he (uh, she) pauses expectantly, waiting for the laugh. There are myriad priceless blink-and-you’ll-miss-it grins and giggles to be had, among all the larger bits of physical funny. So don’t blink.
The true genius of Ludlam’s script isn’t the incorporation of all the old-school horror-story references, or the funny, camped-up writing: “I can’t bear to think of her in the grave,” Edgar says over a quivering bottom lip of his first wife, Irma. “She was always so afraid of the dark.” Later, hired-hand Nicodemus (Jacobson) waves off his werewolf-to-human retransformation, despite still being under a full moon, saying, “A cloud passed over and I am in remission.” Rather, it lies in his ability to find a narrative through all the silliness, a story that actually makes sense amid all the nonsense.
David Langley’s set, in atmospheric black and shades of grey, is rife with hidden passages, blood-dripping paintings and silver bullet-loaded firearms (not to mention an Egyptian backdrop that was almost too portable for the opening-night performance on June 19), and Libby Urner’s costumes and wigs not only look great, but they’re made to be donned and doffed with the utmost dispatch. Lighting (by Karen Anderson) and sound (by Johanna Melamed) both are integral, and both hold up their end — although a few bits of the wonderfully kitschy soundtrack seemed a tad overloud.
And you can’t stomp away from this one without a tip of the mask to Sousa, stage manager Rosie Lambert and their squad of “dressers” — the backstage pit crew who assure that the actors are in the right costumes and clutching the right props — for keeping the pace just frantic enough to work Clark and Jacobson into a lather early and keep them that way though the two hours plus running time. (KCPT’s “Irma Vep” is performed in two acts, as opposed to the original three, which gives Clark and Jacobson one less chance to take on fluids and fresh tires, but helps get audiences back out the door before 10 p.m. following the 7:30 p.m. curtain.)
The tiny Key City Playhouse is a perfect venue for “Irma,” putting play-goers right on top of — and occasionally into — the action. When Edgar and his guide, Alcazar, need to climb down into an Egyptian tomb, Alcazar nonchalantly asks a spectator in the top row to hold the rope. Jacobson, finding his opening-night volunteer at the ready, complimented, “Ooh, look at you!” With all the knowing glances, asides and other comments (Jacobson, in character, admonished front-row patrons to get their feet off the stage), the fourth wall exists only when convenient.
There were a few small snafus with set pieces on opening night, but they were problems that were either ignored or turned into comic opportunities, potholes mined for laughs.
“Irma Vep” is a show you don’t get many opportunities to see, understandably: It asks a lot of its two actors. Fortunately, though, KCPT found two actors of great talent and commitment who’ve been able to make the play their … she-wolf.
It’s hard work for audiences, too. All that laughing takes it right out of you.
Review by Michael Moore, The Kitsap Sun
The Mystery of Irma Vep Brings High Comedy and Gothic Horror to Key City
Called one of the greatest comedies of all time by The New York Times, Charles Ludlam’s satirical masterpiece, The Mystery of Irma Vep, tells the story of leading Egyptologist Lord Edgar and his new wife, Lady Enid, both of whom must contend with the tragic and haunting figure of Irma Vep, Lord Edgar’s late first wife. But this is not the only thing amiss at the gothic mansion of Mandacrest Estate. Jane, the acerbic maid, remains devoted to the memory of her former mistress, and the groundskeeper, Nicodemus has secrets of his own. Throw in some werewolves, vampires, mummies, and all things that go bump in the night — played by two actors in some 35 quick changes and you’ve got one hysterical farce!!! This show will keep you in stitches right up to the final twist!
The Mystery of Irma Vep, directed by Amy E. Sousa, runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Key City Public Theatre from June 18th through July 19th.
Unique Comic Style
Ludlam’s theatrical style focused on spectacle and entertainment, rather than gritty realism. In his work he was known to mix references from both high art and pop culture. Ludlam called The Mystery of Irma Vep, “A Penny Dreadful.” Inspired by nineteenth century pulp serial stories, Ludlam wanted to bring to life the lurid, the sensational, and the ridiculous. According to Ludlam, the “slant was actually to take things very seriously, especially focusing on those things held in low esteem by society and revaluing them, giving them new meaning, new worth, by changing their context.” That is why within the show you will hear references from such diverse sources as Shakespeare, Hitchcock, Ibsen, Shaw, Boris Karloff in The Mummy, Chekhov, Poe, silent film and more… see if you can catch them all!
Pulling Out All the Stops
One of the unspoken tenets of Ludlam’s theater is that not only should the story be outlandish but the productions themselves should be over the top. The Mystery of Irma Vep, which requires a small army backstage to pull off over 35 costume changes, is no exception.
Director Sousa comments, “Irma Vep is such a technically-challenging show that there will be more people backstage than onstage. With this particular play, the production crew usually receives a bow at the end because they put in as much work as the actors do!”
This talented crew includes veteran Set Designer David Langley, whose work audiences might recognize from KCPT’s 2013 production of Heartbreak House, Costume Designer Libby Urner, Lighting Designer Karen Anderson, Sound Designer Johanna Melamed…plus the fabulous backstage crew!!!
The Mystery of Irma Vep, directed by Amy E. Sousa, runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Key City Public Theatre from June 18th through July 19th. All shows, except for the 2:30 matinee on June 21st, are at 7:30 p.m. Tickets ($20 on Thursday/Sunday, $24 on Friday/Saturday, $10 for students any night) are available at keycitypublictheatre.org or at the playhouse box office, 419 Washington Street, Port Townsend (360-385-KCPT). This show is appropriate for ages 8+. Contact the box office for information on discounted performances.
Production sponsors for The Mystery of Irma Vep are Sound Storage and Michelle Sandoval, Windemere Realty. Season sponsors are Port Townsend Fudge Company, Alchemy Bistro & Wine Bar, and SOS Printing.