A young woman arrives at a grand and stately manor, the second wife of its handsome owner, only to be surrounded by memories of wife number one, particularly those brought up by the mansion’s sinister housekeeper. (That’s Alfred Hitchcock-Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, right?) Among the household staff is a hunchback swineherd who turns into a werewolf whenever the moon is full.  (What?  You don’t remember that from Rebecca?)  Another household worker is rumored to be one of those “beings who never die,” aka a Vampire.  (Now that sounds like Dracula!)  Our widowed, remarried hero journeys to Cairo where his presence brings a long-dead Egyptian mummy back to life. (What kind of movie mishmash is this? Have we died and gone to horror movie heaven, or hell?)

In fact, we have entered the wildly imaginative world of Charles Ludlam, author of the play which jumbles all these movie classics into one campy delight, The Mystery Of Irma Vep, now playing at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in a production that simply could not be better or funnier.

The Mystery Of Irma Vep, at one time the most produced play in the U.S., is not only one of the most hilarious satires ever written for the stage, it also provides two same-gendered actors the chance to give tour de force performances—something which is absolutely the case at the Globe, with Broadway’s Jeffrey M. Bender and Tony nominee John Cariani stealing scenes left and right, or rather on all four sides, as this production is presented in the round.

Irma Vep begins in the best Rebecca fashion, with housekeeper Jane Twisden (Cariani) informing wooden-legged servant Nicodemus Underwood (Bender) that their master’s new wife, Lady Enid, will “never make a fit mistress for Mandacrest.  She’ll never live up to the high standards set by Lady Irma.” Clearly, asserts Jane, the second Lady Hillcrest lacks the “fine breeding and savoir fair” of Lady Irma, prompting Nic to reply, “If that French means what I think it does, you’d better wash your mouth out with soap.” Lighting flashes and thunder claps, and Nicodemus tries to put his arm around Jane. “Keep your hands to yourself,” orders the housekeeper. “You smell like a stable.” “If you slept in a table,” replies Nic, “you’d smell like one too!”  And then he adds, “I’m not leaving till you give me a kiss.” “I’ll see you hanged first,” threatens Jane. “Give me a little kiss,” responds Nicodemus, “and then I’ll show you how I’m hung.”

The above exchange is just a taste of the outrageously “camp” sensibility of playwright Ludlam’s imaginative writing, and as other characters join the action (never more than two on stage at once of course), the laughs and surprises keep coming fast and furious. Much of the play’s humor comes from a clever skewering of Victorian melodrama, as when Lady Enid cries out, “No sleep!  No sleep for me!  I shall never sleep again!  Sleep is dead.  Sleep is dead.  She hath murdered sleep.  I dare not be alone to sleep. Don’t leave me alone.  Don’t ever leave me alone again.  For sleep is dead.  Sleep is dead.  Who murdered sleep?”  (How’s that for overkill?) There are plenty of dramatic fadeouts as well, for example when Nicodemus tells Jane that the master’s killing the wolf which has been terrorizing the town is “cause for rejoicing,” and Jane responds ominously, “It’s no rejoicing there’ll be tonight, Nicodemus Underwood. He’s killed the wrong wolf!” Flash of lightning.  Clap of thunder.  Blackout.

Like Charles Busch’s heroines (also portrayed by a man, often Busch himself), many of the laughs come from the humor inherent in cross-gender casting, and lines like Big And Tall-size former actress Lady Enid’s “I’m on an eternal diet.  The stage you know,” are particularly funny simply because of who is saying them.  

If The Mystery Of Irma Vep gets laughs galore in a traditional proscenium staging, the Old Globe’s in-the-round configuration adds even more. Since there is no backdrop to hide behind, Chris Wollman as “The Third Man” is ever visible for “shock moments.” When a bony hand reaches through the French door curtains, we see not just the hand (at the end of a stick), but Wollman manipulating it, then noiselessly exiting.  When a “horrible face” appears at the window, it’s Wollman we see holding up a mask.  Wolman later reappears to open a secret sliding panel by remote control, the same type used to manipulate toy helicopters. (Adding to the laughs at the performance reviewed here was a secret panel malfunction.)

Jane and Lord Edgar are the two roles brought to life by Cariani, who recently appeared at the Ahmanson in Minsky’s and got his Tony nomination for playing Motel in Fiddler On The Roof.  His black-garbed Jane looks deliciously like Hitchcock’s Mrs. Danvers and speaks in an almost indescribable nasal whine, the last syllable of every sentence stretched out an extra second … or two … or three. The dashing Lord Edgar wears a mustache which, as the evening progresses, begins to have difficulty staying attached.  (More laughs.)  In the performance I attended, Jane once showed up briefly mustachioed. Only Cariani’s moment of “losing it” indicated that this might not have been scripted, or then again, perhaps it was part of Ludlam’s oh-so-quirky sense of humor.

Bender gets an extra two roles, making for a grand total of four.  That his limping, lumbering Nicodemus can exit and only moments later a perfectly-coiffed (1940s style), tweedily-gowned Lady Enid can make her entrance would seem an impossibility, but Bender manages it.  Lady Enid, particularly, is quite a creation, man-sized (and noticeably taller than Cariani’s Lord Edgar) yet so quasi-feminine that one almost forgets the role is being played by a man.  Bender later appears in full Egyptian garb as Alcazar, Lord Edgar’s guide, and to even greater comic effect as Pev Amri, a curvaceous, bare-breasted mummy returned to life—one who looks uncannily like Lady Enid.

As hilarious as The Mystery Of Irma Vep is on paper, director Henry Wishcamper makes it even funnier, time and time again, with sight gags aplenty, and an ever imaginative use of the in-the-round staging. He is ably abetted, not just by his brilliant acting duo, but by his design team as well.  Robin West’s scenic design fills the stage with elegant period furniture and a particularly well-chosen tête-à-tête love seat. Jenny Mannis’s costumes are period perfect and often outrageously funny, especially the strapless gown that a plus size, rather hirsute Lady Enid shows up in in Act Three.  Jason Bieber’s excellent lighting features plenty of lightning flashes to which Paul Peterson’s sound design adds the thunder and just the right mood music.

Descriptions of Irma Vep by friends who are fans of the play did not prepare me for how absolutely hilarious and completely original Ludlam’s comic spoof is.  With Wishcamper at the helm and Bender and Cariani creating seven of the funniest characters likely to be seen on stage this year, the Old Globe’s production of The Mystery Of Irma Vep is a smart, delicious, perfectly achieved crowd pleaser. It’s a production I could easily see again and again.

The Old Globe Arena Stage, San Diego Museum Of Art’s James S. Copley Auditorium, Balboa Park, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
August 10, 2009
                                                                                                     Photos: Craig Schwartz

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