Two Decades of Mystery 

Irma Vep is still very much alive, and living in Berkeley.

It was a dark and stormy night, and fog hung heavy along the moors as wolves bayed plaintively at the full moon. Indeed, it was a night fit for neither man nor beast. Luckily at least one character in Charles Ludlam's campy menagerie The Mystery of Irma Vep was both man and beast -- but which character? The lord of the manor? His second wife, late of the London stage? The prim, appearances-mad housekeeper? The groundsman, as depraved as the housekeeper was proper? Or was it ... someone else?

The true identity of the werewolf in The Mystery of Irma Vep is just one of several deliciously silly questions that go hurtling by at breakneck speed as two actors play more than eight over-the-top roles between them in Ludlam's tribute to penny dreadfuls, monster movies, and the novel Rebecca, with which it shares many plot points. Chockablock with pop culture references, giddy cross-dressing, and costume changes so mind-bogglingly clever (and quick) that the audience regularly applauds them, Irma Vep was America's most-produced play in 1991 and holds the honor of being Brazil's longest-running play. It's sort of like Cats, if Cats were a nonmusical camp fiesta that quoted Ibsen (audiences who caught the Rep's production of Ghosts may recognize some of that play's dialogue in an unapologetic direct lift) and Poe and felt like late-night television on crystal meth.

The story of the play's creation is also rather sweet. Ludlam wrote it in part to prove that his boyfriend Everett Quinton, a newcomer to the stage, could act. Ludlam's 25th play (he would write an impressive 29 altogether) didn't just establish Quinton's bona fides, it put Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company on the map. Sadly, Ludlam died a scant few years later in 1987.

Lord Edgar Hillcrest has brought his new bride, Enid, home to Mandacrest, but their newlywed bliss is short-lived as the malign influence of the first Lady Hillcrest -- the mysterious Irma -- spreads throughout the house. There is also something howling around outside, that may or may not have killed Edgar and Irma's son. Both the housekeeper and the groundsman have dark secrets, and the portrait of Irma above the fireplace bleeds at the most inconvenient times. As the mayhem increases, Edgar decides to take off to Egypt to do a spot of mummy reviving, which doesn't help things at home. Werewolves, mummies, vampires, a Phantom of the Opera-like intruder, and plenty of weirdness ensue.

Don't bother trying to follow the logic; there isn't any. Why Lord Edgar decamps for Egypt, for example, makes little to no sense. The best reason I can come up with is that Ludlam needed a mummy, since the play had everything else you might want, and there are just too many good mummy jokes that beg to be told. Speaking of Egypt, how Edgar could have written a whole book on the subject of Egypt and Egyptian mythology without ever having visited the place is a little strange, but the sooner you stop trying to keep track of what's going on and just flow with it, the easier it gets; logical explanations of the character's behavior are just speed bumps.

Sometimes the actors play directly to the audience, or slyly reference things the audience knows but the characters shouldn't. Some of this is scripted, such as when Lady Enid demands to see Nicodemus and Jane points out that she can't (Enid and Nicodemus are played by the same actor) and Enid makes a conspiratorial face at the audience. Some of it is apparently clever improvisation on the part of the actors -- such as the moment on opening night when one shrugged and said "Listen to that wind!" when the audience had just finished roundly hissing a particularly onerous pun.

Interestingly, the dialogue itself is not that funny taken out of context. But what a context! Ludlam loaded up his play with familiar tropes: It is the intertextuality -- our recognition of the components from having seen them dozens of times before in other works -- that makes Irma Vep so entertaining. That, and the actors' perfect comic timing. It quickly gets hard to distinguish which actor is which; suffice it to say that both Erik Steele and Arnie Burton are excellent, handling the quick changes and vocal variety seamlessly. Burton as Lady Enid has some particularly delicious facial expressions and vocal tics, while Steele's Jane the housekeeper is the model of affronted dignity as she tries to get along with the new lady of the house.

Irma Vep is also well served by Berkeley Rep associate artistic director Les Waters' direction. Waters of course staged Charles Mee's equally loony Big Love at the Rep a few years back. In that one, he had actors climbing the proscenium arch and jumping over each other in a way that recalled circus acrobatics. His gift for making a show fully inhabit the performance space is evident once again here as the two actors climb through the audience, throw around a stuffed prop wolf, and generally make themselves seem a lot larger than they really are (a point many audience members were noting afterward on opening night, although that might have something to do with the fact that the actors appeared to be wearing all their costumes at once). Meanwhile Peter Golub pulled out all the stops on the creepy music and Annie Smart designed a set that easily transitions from overstuffed Mandacrest to an Egyptian tomb (or is it?) and back, with stagehands who appear to be having as much fun with the audience as the actors.

Local playwright and colleague Erin Blackwell worked with Ludlam in New York many years ago, serving as his stage manager. If this show is any indication, it must have been a daunting task. Ludlam's vision calls for drill-team precision in every aspect, from the lightning-fast costume changes to the hectic lighting cues. Blackwell speaks reverentially of Ludlam's gifts as a writer and performer, noting that anything he needed to know to make a show fit his vision, he would set out to learn, whether it was stage magic or cinematography. He also apparently had a deep reverence for the possibilities of camp, to which The Mystery of Irma Vep is an unashamed and totally delightful homage, especially in the Berkeley Rep's current madcap production.

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