BWW Reviews: Charles Ludlam's Farce IRMA VEP a Big Halloween Score at Falcon
The Mystery of Irma Vep, written by Charles Ludlam in 1984 and a sensation off Broadway and beyond into the 90s, certainly lives up to its subtitle A Penny Dreadful. That's actually a good thing! A Penny Dreadul was a 19th century British fictional publication, usually printed in papers and magazines as a serial (in consecutive installments), aimed at cheap sensationalism. In all its campy style and ludicrousness, Irma Vep aims to thrill, even overkill, tickling one's fancy with its heavy emphasis on vampires, ghosts and werewolves. This perfect for Halloween treat, directed in brilliant, resourceful style by Jenny Sullivan will play on at the Falcon through November 17.
Two actors, Matthew Floyd Miller and Jamie Torcellini, in an astounding act of courage or lunacy, maybe both, essay eight characters in telling a story that parodies the Victorian era as well as several theatrical pieces and films, with a heavy concentration on Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca. It is a requirement that the two actors in this cross-dressing piece be of the same sex. Lady Enid (Torcellini), an aging actress of the stage is the new second wife of Lord Edgar (Miller) of Mandacrest Manor. The first wife Irma, whose portrait hangs over the mantelpiece, met a strange and violent death as did her son Victor, and loyal servant Jane (Miller) finds her own creepy, sordid way to pull the rug out from under Enid, who so longs for acceptance as the new lady of the manor. How did Irma die? How much does Jane really know? And what about Nicodemus (Torcellini), the vulnerable nitwit male servant, who must also put up with Jane and her evil ways? Remember Judith Anderson, who was evil personified as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca...how she deviously plotted to undermine poor Joan Fontaine in her attempt to fit in as Laurence Olivier's second wife? Well, Jane follows in her footsteps, but with many, many more issues and complications. Act II switches scenes from the moors of England to Egypt, as Edgar is an Egyptologist - what could be more exotic, where we are faced with mummies, ghouls and other elements of darkness?
Charles Ludlam wrote the piece for his Ridiculous Theatre Company and in 1991, Irma Vep was the most produced play in the US. Of special note is that in spite of its high comedic style Ludlam's "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". This explains going 360 degrees in a different direction and using high camp in retelling the horrorific tale.
Miller and Torcellini are nothing short of amazing in their portrayal of all the characters. How they make the costume changes so quickly is an astounding feat, not to mention the different accents they utilize and the overall tremendous physicality that the execution of the play demands from them. I still cannot figure out how Torcellini as Nicodemus makes such a fast exit lying face down on the floor; he's literally whisked backwards off the stage as in a gust of wind.
One delicious faux pas occurred opening night. Edgar's moustache repeatedly would not stay in place; it kept peeling off on the left side perhaps due to insufficient glue. The audience was in hysterics as Miller did everything in the book fiddling with it and trying to cover it up including pressing a book he was holding against his upper lip. It was hilarious. This kind of repetitious slip works delightfully in over.the.top satire.
Sullivan keeps the pacing up and moving at lightning speed and the entire silly, over-the-top show is sheer heaven, maybe hell....that is the absolute trick or treat! Thomas S. Giamario has designed the Victorian style drawing room set as well as the Egyptian tomb and Alex Jaeger is responsible for the bewitching costumes.