The Horror, the Hilarity
The audience waiting for the curtain to rise for The Mystery of Irma Vep at Actors' Playhouse was a thicket of blue-hairs strafing the room with chitchat louder than gunfire in Compton, yakking about where to get their grub on after the matinee. Thankfully they were silenced by a stern usher with a wave of a flashlight and a roll of the eyes, and not even the atmosphere of noxious perfume could stink up the joint once the production got underway.
The Mystery of Irma Vep outrageously lampoons Victorian thrillers so-called penny dreadfuls of the late Nineteenth Century, even as it pilfers liberally from film classics like Wuthering Heights, The Mummy's Curse, and Rebecca. With its ricochet repartee, the delightfully bawdy romp also makes mincemeat of Shakespeare, Wilde, Ibsen, Poe, and a Dickens-size cast of characters.
Written in 1984 by the late Charles Ludlum, who founded New York City's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, the campy farce features veteran locals Tom Wahl and John Felix in top-flight form, portraying all of the play's eight characters. It's a gut-tickling quick-change riot rife with werewolves, vampires, an airhead in distress, and a whack-job mummy merchant who nearly steals the show.
The action opens in the drawing room of a decaying ancestral Gothic estate, Mandacrest, where a sinister portrait of Lady Irma Hillcrest hangs over the mantel while a fire crackles below.
Jane Twisden (Felix), the crazed and jealous maid, mourns the loss of the manor's first mistress and seems to have Lady Enid Hillcrest (Wahl), the new lady of the house, in her gun sights. A lecherous swineherd, Nicodemus Underwood (Wahl), has a boner for the equally unsavory housekeeper, and it twitches like a divining rod hot on her tail during most of the play. Tweedy Egyptologist Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Felix) still seems under the spell of his first wife, while the second, a gold-digging strumpet-slash-actress, must uncover the mystery of Irma's death to avoid doom.
Thunder claps on the moors, a werewolf's howl splits the air, and the snaggletooth Nicodemus takes a stab at humping the plump maid's leg. "Give me a kiss," he tells her, "and I'll show you how I'm hung."
If none of this makes any sense, don't worry: When Enid makes her appearance, she agrees. Wahl's Enid, with her flowing Victorian gowns, golden locks, and five-o'clock shadow, is a hoot. He milks the flouncing femme fatale role for every drop, batting his lashes like a hummingbird's wings. He deftly evinces more tics and mannerisms than Carol Burnett hamming it up as Scarlett O'Hara. This madcap nonsense is part Monty Python, part Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy. In drag.
With more than 40 costume changes in about 90 minutes, the actors zip from character to character with a hairpin precision that defies description. Watching Wahl exit through one door as Enid and then return within seconds as Nicodemus left me dazed, in stitches, and wondering how the actor keeps track of which head he had screwed on between scenes.
Ear-rattling shrieks, sight gags, and corny one-liners manically pepper the dialogue in wicked bits. In one scene, Enid and Jane engage in some sort of bizarre pissing contest, jutting their udders at each other and rubbing them while discussing the Hillcrests' haunted history. It turns out the late Lady Irma had two Victors in her life; one was a pet wolf and the other an infant son whose throat was torn open by the very same. Both might be prowling the moors, we soon learn.
In a hilarious turn, a werewolf skulks into the library and drags Enid off through the French doors. Nicodemus's wooden leg flies into the room, and a gunshot rings out. In a lightning-fast change, the swineherd and a blustery Lord Hillcrest are back in the drawing room, bemoaning the dastardly deed.
At one point, as Nicodemus prepared to hold forth on the heinous offense, Wahl accidentally coughed up his grill one of the most memorable moments in the first act. Both actors tried to keep from cackling but ultimately lost it when they were sidetracked by the audience's screams. Wahl nonchalantly picked up his crooked teeth and wedged them into his gob. Later a hobbled Nicodemus mugged at the audience as he screwed his creaky wooden leg back onto his stump, and Jane fired a pistol, drawing blood from Lady Irma's spooky painting.
When the master of Mandacrest and his manservant kvetch over the supernatural shenanigans at the end of the first act, Lord Hillcrest arches an eyebrow and delivers a groaner: "I am not a superstitious man, for I believe it brings bad luck."
During Act Two, Lord Edgar and Alcazar (Wahl) the skeevy mummy peddler and his Egyptian guide walk into the audience while holding kerosene lanterns, seeking to plunder an ancient tomb. When they hit the jackpot in Irma Vep's most hilarious scene, Wahl becomes Pev Amri, a mummy princess whom Lord Edgar revives. Felix dresses in the lurid vestments of a priest of Anubis and what I can only describe as a Carmen Miranda headdress from a laundry basket, donning them and scampering across the stage like Aleister Crowley on meth. The mummy, dressed like a pole-dancing Cleopatra, pops out of a "sarcofagus" and clears the dust from her pipes by crying out, "Cairo ... Cairo ... practor!" Lord Edgar returns to Mandacrest with his priceless find.
The final act opens with Jane dusting the mummy's casket in the drawing room, where a fresh painting of Lady Enid now hangs. Soon the pair are plucking the theme from the movie Deliverance on dueling dulcimers. A morose Enid remarks that the painting lacks the varnish of purity she once had. "Virginity is the balloon in the carnival of life," the maid retorts. "It vanishes with one prick."
A final confrontation between Jane and Enid and Nicodemus and Edgar at the cusp of revelation involves several frantic chase scenes, a meat ax-wielding villain, a prisoner buried behind a wall, and a whirlwind rendezvous between Lady Enid and the wolf.
Crisply directed by David Arisco, its costumes magically engineered by the sensational Mary Lynne Izzo, and gleefully performed by the comically gifted John Felix and Tom Wahl, The Mystery of Irma Vep is a delirious descent into madness that sticks to the ribs and never lets go.
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