Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

The Mystery of Irma Vep
Old Globe Theatre

Also see Bill's reviews of Herringbone and First Wives Club

John Cariani and
Jeffrey M. Bender

Charles Ludlam spent most of his theatre career in the avant-garde off-off-Broadway realms of Greenwich Village, where his Ridiculous Theatrical Company put on production after production in which he served as producer, director, writer and star, many times in drag.  He broke through to the mainstream with his 1984 spoof of penny dreadfuls, The Mystery of Irma Vep, a play that New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich included among his list of best plays for that year.  It was a pretty good season for plays, too—the Tony nominees were Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues, William Hoffman's As Is, David Rabe's Hurlyburly and August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (bonus points: can you recall which one won?).  But, undoubtedly, Mr. Ludlam's play is produced more often than any of these others.

Now, it's the Old Globe's turn, as the final production of its five-play summer season.  And all of the elements are in place for the production to crackle.  Maybe with a few more performances under their belts, the company will do so.

Mr. Ludlam's play turns not only on dead-on parodies of old movies of this genre but on the fact that only two actors (originally Mr. Ludlam and his partner, Everett Quinton) play all of the roles.  Keeping the play moving involves a number of quick changes, many of which go from male to female characters and back again.  In a relatively small proscenium space, such as the Ridiculous Theatre's home, or the Westside Theatre in New York, where Mr. Quinton directed a successful 1998 revival, the actors could dart out a door, do the change, and dart back in, even through another door, in no time.

But the Old Globe is staging this version in its temporary arena space, which has been created out of the nearby San Diego Museum of Art's multipurpose hall.  Arena staging means that there are no real doors (Robin Vest's clever set uses half-doors, but the entire space, audience areas included, is part of the action).  The actors (John Cariani and Jeffrey M. Bender) have a long way to go to get off-stage, change and get back on again.

Therefore, director Henry Wishcamper cheats: he introduces another character called (again, cleverly) The Third Man (Chris Wollman).  Mr. Wollman wears all black and a headset, so it is disconcerting the first time we see him—it appears to be a mistake backstage.  But it soon becomes clear that The Third Man is there to provide special effects that might have been done from behind or under the set in a more traditional staging, as well as to move things on an off when they need to be moved (there is an especially funny bit involving a remote control unit).  Mr. Wollman's presence is probably necessary, but it still feels like somehow the two guys onstage weren't really doing it all.

In fact, because the guys onstage are running for their lives whenever they had a costume change the pace of the play lags more than a little.  Even so, once they make it onstage, there is fun to be had.  To wit: the play is set in Mandacrest, a British country estate, during the time that penny dreadful novels were being turned into films starring the likes of Joan Fontaine.  Lady Enid, Lord Edgar's second wife, has come from the city to take up residence, but the staff—a housekeeper named Jane Twisden and a groundskeeper named Nicodemus Underwood—are still pining for their previous mistress, who died under unusual circumstances.  The moor surrounding the estate does seem to be possessed, and Lord Edgar spends an inordinate amount of time hunting, looking for one wolf in particular.  By (deliberately outlandish) coincidence, Lord Edgar is also an avid Egyptologist, so when an opportunity comes along to invade the tomb of a young woman who may not have been dead when she was buried, he jumps at it.

Of course, the more over the top this silliness gets the better, and on opening night the actors were partway there, with things improving significantly as the story unfolded.  Mr. Cariani is particularly effective playing Jane, though he also does well ad-libbing through losing Lord Edgar's moustache more than once.  Mr. Bender seems to shine most as Nicodemus, and he and Mr. Cariani manage to crack each other up just enough to keep things spontaneous.

The technical side of things is a big help.  Robin Vest's aforementioned set not only furnishes a good deal of humor itself but transforms well from Mandacrest to Egypt and back again (sort of—don't be confused about where you're sitting when you come back from intermission).  Jenny Mannis' costumes bring their own visual wit to the proceedings (though, I wondered how "quick change" some of them really were), and Jason Bieber and Paul Peterson contribute highly effective lighting and sound designs.

I'd wait a week to go, if you can (the show runs until September 6).  By that time, everyone should have picked up the pace and the result should be depraved delight.

The Old Globe presents The Mystery of Irma Vep at the Old Globe Arena Stage at the James S. Copley Auditorium, San Diego Museum of Art, though September 6, 2009.  Tickets at (619) 23-GLOBE or The Old Globe website.

The Mystery of Irma Vep. Directed by Henry Wishcamper, with scenic design by Robin Vest, costume design by Jenny Mannis, lighting design by Jason Bieber, and sound design by Paul Peterson.  With John Cariani (Jane Twisden, Lord Edgar Hillcrest, and An Intruder), Jeffrey M. Bender (Nicodemus Underwood, Lady Enid Hillcrest, Alcazar, and Pev Amri), and Chris Wollman (The Third Man).

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

See the current theatre season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

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