Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The Mystery of Irma Vep
Also see Susan's review of Nixon's Nixon
Playwright Charles Ludlam considered "the ridiculous" his motivation for theater, and Irma Vep is a prime example, mashing together elements from various Gothic stories and movies, both highbrow and low, and tying it together with two manic actors playing all the roles. (At Arena, the backstage support staff gets a much-deserved curtain call for its help.)
As directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman, actors Brad Oscar and J. Fred Shiffman carom off each other like pinballs, using their facial expressions and voices as ably as their bodies to evoke laughter. Oscar alternates between the fluttery, if suspiciously strong, Lady Enid Hillcrest and the oafish servant Nicodemas, while Shiffman is Lady Enid's husband, the well-born Victorian twit Lord Edgar, and the pinched housekeeper Jane Twisden.
How do they do it? How can Oscar vanish through the French doors in a costume that includes a prosthetic leg, then reappear seconds later in cascading red and pink ruffles? How can Shiffman get out of those absurd plaid knickers in time to squeeze himself into Jane's forbidding gray dress? These questions are as meaningless, and as much fun, as trying to figure out the identity of the long-haired intruder who skulks in during one scene and is never mentioned again.
One can imagine Ludlam going through his list of cultural references as he assembled the components of his farce. A ghostly first wife who still influences the household, as in Rebecca, and her fanatically devoted servant? Check. An isolated mansion on the English moors, like Wuthering Heights? Of course. A fascination with ancient Egypt borrowed from The Mummy? It's all there, along with vampires, werewolves and suspicious knickknacks, not to mention the indescribable bit involving two dulcimers.
Taichman and her designers add their own touches, from James Noone's set that miraculously shifts from monochrome to color; to David Zinn's costumes, especially Lady Enid's mountainous gowns; to Daniel MacLean Wagner's cinematic lighting; to Bray Poor's ingenious use of cheesy horror-movie music and strangely familiar sound effects.