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October 12, 2006
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
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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