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October 12, 2006

Stage Matters

Vep at the Rep:
No Mystery, Just Fun


When the Theatre of the Ridiculous movement emerged in Greenwich Village in the mid-1960s, its combination of travesty, transvestism, visual flamboyance, parody, impersonation, high camp and low comedy, and its anarchic refusal to take anything seriously, caused a long-running scandal. As writer and actor, and founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Charles Ludlam (not to be confused with thriller writer, Robert Ludlum) was at the heart of it. Though the establishment press and theatre refused to take note of him, notables like Noel Coward and Rudolph Nureyev snuck off to see his performances.

But by the time Ludlam wrote The Mystery of Irma Vep in 1984 (just a few years before his death from AIDS), he was an honored and active playwright and theatre artist. (He can be seen in the movie The Big Easy, playing Lamar.) Also by then, the Ridiculous movement's "mix-and-match of `high' and `low' culture" (in the words of Performing Arts Journal's Bonnie Marranca) had become the standard stuff of both postmodernism and Hollywood. While much of the '60s movement's gender-bending was political and ephemeral parody, and meant to be very in-your-face provocative, this play has survived to become part of the regional theatre repertoire because it is very theatrical, solidly constructed and solidly funny.

Left: Brian Walker and Victor Howard in
The Mystery of Irma Vep.

The Ferndale Rep production gives us "Irma" as it was meant to be seen: Unlike some regional productions, it reproduces the original casting of two actors playing virtually all the roles. Victor Howard as a ramrod-straight early 20th century English Egyptologist and the determinedly proper housekeeper of his estate house provides a certitude (and some surprising gymnastics) that grounds the story, while he subtly plays the comedy in his characters' strutting and sincere cluelessness.

Brian Walker has the more obviously flamboyant roles: The cloddish caretaker with the wooden leg, an Egyptian trader with a suspiciously Indian accent and, especially, the new Lady of the House, who he plays with a disarming sweetness. He also exercises restraint, so that the comedy comes from character and interaction as much as funny business.

Compared to how such parts were once done, these actors probably underplay them, yet they serve the play perfectly well. This approach is a good one for this time and place, and for family audiences -- this production is more Milton Berle than John Waters. The cross-dressing is part of the fun, partly because of the necessary quick changes, but there is an innocence about it that's expressed in the way Walker says the line, "Any man who dresses up as a woman can't be all bad," as if (s)he were talking about the kindness of strangers. It's Blanche Dubois by way of Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie.

Both actors are masterful, filling the stage with defined characters, all of whom deliver their lines clearly. Each actor creates character vocally as well as visually (and occasionally talks to himself in his different voices offstage). The doubling of the actors consciously becomes part of the comedy, and soon the characters are themselves going through transformations or donning disguises. There is also a wild dance of Shiva that somehow becomes the Macarena.

Not all the pop culture and high culture references are fully exploited, but the clarity and momentum easily make up for that. Renee Grinnell and Vikki Young co-direct with energy and taste, and the valiant backstage crew is justifiably brought out for the curtain call. The costume creators are unsung heroes, and the sound (designed by Jim Berry) and especially the use of music is inspired. The many people who contributed to the elaborate and effective set added personal items, including a tapestry that's literally from the set of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments.

A mummy, werewolves and vampires, nostalgic melodrama and hints of myth add to the play's underlying fascination, as well as its delightful theatricality. This excellent production serves a solid play: It's the skillful telling of the convoluted, silly story that nevertheless sucks us in (a lesson Ludlam may have learned from Oscar Wilde) and anchors all this mayhem, providing plenty of grounded opportunities for virtuoso moments and general inventiveness. This production is not only well worth seeing -- it's the kind of show it would be fun to see more than once.

The Mystery of Irma Vep opened the Rep's 35th season, and the occasion was marked with a celebration that also honored Almquist Lumber for its donation of clear heart redwood used for the renovated theatre marquee. It plays through Oct. 22.

Coming Up: Range of Light, a new play written by HSU grad and Eureka resident Wendy J. Williams and inspired by the life of her friend, Carole Sund, opens tonight (Thursday, Oct. 12) at the Van Duzer Theatre on the HSU campus. Final warning: HSU plays have a new curtain-up time of 7:30 p.m.


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