The next laugh is never more than a few seconds away as the Falcon Theatre presents Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery Of Irma Vep, one of the most hilarious comic spoofs ever—and a showcase for director Jenny Sullivan and its two brilliant leading men/women Matthew Floyd Miller and Jamie Torcellini.

Mystery-Irma-Vep-Photo-3 A lovely young damsel 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. (What have we here? Dracula?)

Mystery-Irma-Vep-Photo-7 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 playwright Ludlam, whose The Mystery Of Irma Vep jumbles all these movie classics into one campy delight.

Mystery-Irma-Vep-Photo-8 Irma Vep begins in the best Rebecca fashion, with housekeeper Jane Twisden (Miller) informing wooden-legged servant Nicodemus Underwood (Torcellini) 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 faire” 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.”

Mystery-Irma-Vep-Photo-2 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.

Mystery-Irma-Vep-Photo-5 Much of the play’s humor comes from its 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.

There are many other delicious moments to savor. Torcellini and Miller (as Lady Enid and Lord Edgar) turn a conversation made up only of each others’ names into a fully fleshed-out scene running the gamut from baby talk to passionate arousal to climactic rapture to sleep, all in less than a minute.

There’s also the hilarious self-awareness of Jane telling Lady Enid that “Nicodemus can’t come … for obvious reasons” (remember that Lady Enid and Nic are both played by Torcellini) and Lady Enid’s subsequent remark that “sometimes I feel that I am Nicodemus. That Nicodemus and I are one and the same person.”

And how about when Jane informs her new mistress that Lord Edgar himself wore his late wife’s ball gown “when in an antic mood, in younger, happier days,” and Lady Enid replies that “any man who dresses up as a woman can’t be all bad.” Not just delicious, moments like these. Absolutely scrumptious!

One of the greatest pleasures in attending a production of The Mystery Of Irma Vep is seeing how its two stars make Ludlam’s cast of characters their own, and this one is no exception.

Mystery-Irma-Vep-Photo-1 Miller’s Lord Edgar is the dashingly handsome, quintessentially British leading man any Lady Enid could hope for, that is if he can keep his mustache on, non-stick glue providing some hilarious, are-they-ad-libbed-or-scripted moments. And as The Mystery Of Irma Vep’s black-gowned answer to Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers, Miller gives us a six-plus-foot Mary Lincoln with so smooth a gait, you’d swear she was on a moving sidewalk.

Mystery-Irma-Vep-Photo-4 Torcellini gets twice as many roles, each one an inspired gem. His wooden-legged Nicodemus limps like a tugboat rocked on a stormy sea; his curvy, curly-haired, elegantly-gowned Lady Enid has an upper lip ready to quiver on a moment’s notice, his Egyptian-robed Alcazar (Lord Edgar’s guide to the Egyptian tombs) would do Mel Brooks proud, and his Pev Amri, a curvaceous, bare-breasted Lady Enid look-alike mummy returned to life, shows us how to “Dance Like An Egyptian.”

Off-stage costume changes take place lickety-split, thanks to two very busy (and unseen) dressers, Genetra Tull and Christine Vaughn, our two stars exiting from one side of the stage and returning only instants later from the opposite side as another character. (Aaron Batzdorff completes the indefatigable backstage crew.)

The Falcon Theatre production reunites almost the entire team that scored the Rubicon Theatre’s Fall 2011 Mystery Of Irma Vep five Ovation Award nominations—Best Production, Best Director (Sullivan), Best Lead Actor (Torcellini), Best Sound Design (David Baudry), and Best Costumes (Alex Jaeger), with Miller new to the mix this time round—their reunion proving the best possible news for those like this reviewer who missed Irma Vep the first time.

Beaudry’s alternately hilarious/spooky sound design is indeed a winner as are Jaeger’s clever, imaginatively designed costumes, tailor-made for each star. Thomas S. Giamario’s scenic and lighting designs take us from Mandacrest to exotic Egypt amidst flashes of lightning (and a deliciously conceived bit of strobe lighting). John M. McElveney’ myriad props merit multiple snaps as well, including plenty of guns, armor, and stuffed animal heads (courtesy of Mr. Phillip Miller).

Dale Alan Cook is stage manager, Mike Jespersen technical director, and Claudio Radocchia sound operator.

There may not be nearly as many characters on stage for The Mystery Of Irma Vep as there are in the Falcon’s signature Troubies shows (and only about 10% of the actors), but the laughs are sure to be every bit as loud and frequent as Lord and Lady Hillcrest and company fill the Falcon stage with a cornucopia of inspired hilarity from now till the weekend before Thanksgiving—reason enough for comedy lovers of any age to give thanks in abundance.

Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
October 25, 2013
Photos: Chelsea Sutton

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