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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

The Whipping Man and The Mystery of Irma Vep

The Whipping Man
Cody Nickell, Johnnie Hobbs, Jr.
and James Ijames

Photo: Mark Garvin
The Whipping Man tells the story of the Civil War's aftermath from an uncommon point of view. Matthew Lopez's play has some faults, but at its best it's lyrical and transfixing. Three excellent performances help to make it a moving evening.

Set a few days after the war's end, The Whipping Man tells the story of Caleb DeLeon, a Confederate soldier who returns home to find his family mansion in ruins, inhabited only by two of the family's ex-slaves. The relationship between the three men is, naturally, complicated—and a big factor is that Caleb and his family are Jewish, and thus the ex-slaves are Jewish as well. Simon, the home's caretaker, takes control of the situation, saving Caleb's life and leading the trio in a makeshift seder for Passover. But while Caleb takes comfort in the Passover traditions, Simon sternly warns him "It will not be like before." By the end of the meal, all three men will have wrestled with their pain, their guilt, and the faith and brotherhood that, whether they like it or not, binds them together.

Lopez's dialogue has a crisp economy that adds to its realism; you can believe that these men have known each other for decades, and that Caleb and his ex-servant John really were childhood playmates. Lopez also has a gift for narrative—for a play with only three characters, the plot moves along at a surprisingly brisk clip. Simon, John and Caleb are rich, complex characters, not just a collection of stereotypes, and Lopez's perceptive dialogue fleshes them out well. The parallels Lopez draws between American slavery and the Jews' exodus from Egypt have a lot of resonance.

The play is excellent, but it's not perfect. At times, that vivid dialogue seems too contemporary for its own good, more 21st century HBO than 19th century Virginia. John's self-educated eloquence sometimes seems unconvincing, and Caleb's language turns from abrasive to poetic when the situation demands it. Some of the plot twists strain credulity (who would buy slaves just as General Lee was surrendering?). The final minutes contain a revelation that cries out for a resolution. And the opening scene concludes with Caleb getting his leg amputated—a gruesome image (punctuated by blood-curdling screams) that may take some viewers a while to recover from.

But little of this gets in the way of The Whipping Man's raw power. Director Matt Pfeiffer's graceful production builds beautifully, aided by the spooky set (by David P. Gordon) and lighting (by Thom Weaver). And it's anchored by Johnnie Hobbs, Jr.'s imposing performance as Simon. By turns benevolent, considerate and violent, Hobbs' Simon takes command of the stage, and the audience's attention, from the very beginning and never lets go. James Ijames is brimming with keening intelligence and bubbling hostility as John. Cody Nickell conveys all the pride and shame in Caleb, making the most of what could be a stock villain in other hands.

The Whipping Man tries to stuff a lot into two hours, and sometimes the seams show. But it's still an immensely satisfying and stirring drama that shows that some struggles are universal and timeless.

The Whipping Man runs through December 18, 2011, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $29 to $45 (with discounts available for students, seniors, military, educators and children) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheatre.org, or in person at the box office.

Irma Vep
Luigi Sottile and Dito van Reigersberg
Photo: Bill D'Agostino
The mood is considerably lighter in Ambler, where Charles Ludlum's durable farce The Mystery of Irma Vep is receiving a boisterous production at the Act II Playhouse. Ludlum's campy play—a spoof of 19th century gothic romance novels, Edgar Allen Poe short stories, 1930s horror movies, 1940s melodramas, and anything else he could think of—was written with a loving, educated respect for the genres it parodies. And that respect carries over to director Harriet Power's rapid-fire production.

The story opens in a stately English manor where the new mistress of the house, Lady Enid, wonders if Irma, the late first wife of her husband, is exerting too strong an influence on the household from beyond the grave. Before long, Lady Enid finds herself dealing with werewolves, vampires and a sarcophagus; as she laments (in a typically corny line), "It's a terrible thing to marry an Egyptologist and find he's hung up on his mummy."

Even if you don't catch all the literary and cinematic references, you'll love Irma Vep because of the dazzling quick-change artistry of its two actors. Each actor plays several characters, and must execute backstage costume changes that can take as long as thirty seconds and as quickly as three seconds. Part of the fun is seeing whether or not the actors will make it or not—and then being surprised when they make the hard work seem effortless. (The dressers, Lauren Myers and Kristen Watts, deserve a lot of the credit.)

Dito van Reigersberg, his gangly frame barely contained by Act II's small stage, plays everything from the aristocratic Lady Edna to a lower class workman who, in one of the show's funniest bits, turns into a werewolf virtually before our eyes. Luigi Sottile hams it up as a Cockney maid, then turns into the debonair Lord Edgar, casually stepping with a Pythonesque silly walk over a dead body on the floor of his study.

Power's production errs only when it uses pop culture references from recent decades. Seeing the two actors dance to a snippet of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" is jarring, as it takes Ludlum's characters out of their comfort zone. But moments like this are rare. For the most part, The Mystery of Irma Vep is an outlandish, ridiculous delight.

The Mystery of Irma Vep runs through November 20, 2011, at Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices range from $27 to $33, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-654-0200, online at www.act2.org, or in person at the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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