Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Mystery of Irma Vep
Buffalo Theatre Ensemble

Also see John's review of The Lion King Richard's review of Night and Day

Bryan Burke and
William "Sandy" Smillie

Film and TV, having supplanted theatre as the dominant media for dramatic art, may have eliminated the need for audiences to involve their own imaginations in viewing a story, as their technology can be used to show locale and action quite literally and realistically. Ironically, though, film/video may be playing an important role in re-educating audiences on how to experience a story told on stage. The popularity of bringing popular film stories to the stage has necessitated the use of overtly theatrical techniques to communicate visually without location filming or special effects. On stage, artists have to be more representational and ask the audience to work a little harder to imagine the visuals aspects of the story. The stagecraft being employed by artists to bring these visually complex stories to the stage can range from the elaborate life-sized puppetry of The Lion King to the magic of bare-boned, old-fashioned stagecraft that is the basis of The Mystery of Irma Vep.

This play, first produced Off-Broadway in 1984, predates the flood of film-to-stage productions that began some time in the 1990s with the Disney musicals. A satire of 1930s and '40s horror and suspense films, The Mystery of Irma Vep draws mostly on the 1940 film Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Though Rebecca was hardly a commercial property of Disney proportions, and it's doubtful author Charles Ludlam chose that source material for its money-making potential, Irma Vep has a vocabulary familiar enough to today's audiences who have seen the old suspense films at one time or another. That said, Irma Vep was reportedly the most produced play in America at one point and has remained a staple of the theater community since then, probably for its crowd-pleasing potential, relatively modest production demands and small cast. Still, everyone involved has to be the top of their game to tell this story of a new wife who has just moved into Mandacrest, her husband's rural British manor home. As in Rebecca, the manse is haunted at least by the memory of the husband's deceased first wife, if not by other spirits as well. In this play, though, the deceased may be a ghost and/or a vampire who may have been killed by the local werewolf. A revived mummy also figures into the action (the husband is an archeologist, you see). Per licensing requirements of the Ludlam estate, all seven characters must be played by two actors of the same gender, requiring that there will be cross-dressing.

The Equity company Buffalo Theatre Ensemble in west suburban Chicago delivers on all of the stagecraft and comic acting demands of the piece. Its performers, Bryan Burke and William "Sandy" Smillie, handle the seven roles and tens of costume changes in and out of character without missing a beat. Smillie plays Edgar Hillcrest, the Lord of the estate, with an Olivier-inspired flair and can stretch a single word like "reasonable" over a mellifluous five or ten seconds. Walking with a little waddle, he's also the housekeeper Jane Twisden (a take-off of the Mrs. Danvers character played by Dame Judith Anderson in Rebecca) and, while he might have given the character a bit more haughty officiousness, her stern and matronly quality is winning. Burke gets to show off more, playing four parts with great comic potential. He's the young wife Lady Enid, a bit stocky inside all he bustles, but still sweetly naïve. He's also the valet Nicodemus Underwood, a character role (though in this piece, aren't they all?), with a defective leg and a tendency to howl at a full moon. Burke also lampoons stereotypical Middle-Eastern characters of the '30s and '40s cinema as Lord Hillcrest's guide through Egypt and also as the mummy Hillcrest finds there and brings back to life.

Smillie and Burke handle the character changes with such skill—frequently changing costumes behind the sets while providing off-stage dialogue or sound effects—that we nearly forget we're watching only two actors play scenes involving four or more characters. Burke can even convince us his two arms belong to two different characters simply by turning his back to the audience and donning a fake arm or leg.

Director Connie Canaday Howard and her team have put together a joyous lesson in how basic stagecraft can transport an audience into another world. The manor is recreated simply but effectively in Michael W. Moon's set and lighting, while Allison Greaves Amidei's costumes, makeup and hair do their part in transforming Smillie and Burke into seven early twentieth century Brits. Galen G. Ramsey provides the sounds and a perfect musical score that evokes all the elegance of Max Steiner's film scores of the period.

The Buffalo Theatre Ensemble performs at the McAninch Arts Center on the campus of the College of DuPage, where Ms. Howard is director of theater. The audience on the Thursday night I attended included members much younger than the typical theatergoer, so I'm guessing they might have been students there on assignment. They got a great lesson in the ways inventive acting and solid stagecraft can transport an audience without tons of money or special effects. The company will present some heavier fare (Bryony Lavery's Frozen and Brian Friel's Faith Healer) later in the season, but as an introduction, The Mystery of Irma Vep should convince newcomers to the theater than that it can be a good time.

The Mystery of Irma Vep will be performed through October 17, 2010, at the McAninch Arts Center, Stage Two, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn, Illinois. For tickets, call the box office at 630-942-4200 or visit

Photo provided by Buffalo Theatre Ensemble

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-- John Olson

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