- The Mystery of Irma Vep
- Written by Charles Ludlam
Directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman
Produced by Arena Stage
- Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
The Mystery of Irma Vep is a silly spoof of legendary movie characters and literary themes, filled with madcap antics, satire, and whirlwind costume changes. Similar to Noises Off, it’s filled with silly sight-gags, mind-twisting analogies, drop-dead funny double and triple entendres, while pushing from the sublime to the truly ridiculous. The lunacy comes directly from the mind of the late Charles Ludlam, creator of New York’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and features a Tony nominee and one of the zaniest actors in the metro area.
Based on the themes in Daphne du Maurier’s (via Hitchcock’s) Rebecca, the newly married Lady Enid Hillcrest has moved into the manor controlled by a sinister housekeeper complete with the requisite misty moors and ominous overtones of gloom. The mystery of what really happened to Irma Vep whose portrait gazes observantly from the mantle is enough for a howling werewolf spoof of a good time. The actors hold absolutely nothing back, breaking the speed barrier with lightning fast costume and character changes.
The impeccable J. Fred Shiffman who, with his lean-lilt bearing and withering expressions can deliver a line like no other, plays the hell out of the sinister housekeeper, skewering the hapless new wife with laser sharp glares and witty lines. He tamps it down considerably as Lord Edgar Hillcrest, an ordinary chap without much distinction.
Tony nominee Brad Oscar, picture Nathan Lane with flashes of Jack Black mania, must cover the oh-so-theatrical Lady Enid and the lecherous grounds man Nicodemus. While funny, it seems the characters could have and should have had more impact. More camp?Or less? Hard to say.
Which brings us to tone and direction. Rebecca Bayla Taichman, who brought a phenomenally fresh sensibility to Shakespeare’s troublesome Taming of the Shrew for the Shakespeare Theatre Company last year, seems stuck on full throttle here, heavy on the farce with maybe not enough heart to let the whole thing matter. It’s wickedly funny, yes, but some parts feel strained. Or it could just be the material. Lord Edgar’s trip to Egypt in the second act seemed more of a diversion. Add that to his fixation on the invoked Egyptian maiden, hauling the dang sarcophagus back and plopping it in the mansion which is in the midst of its own extreme makeover, including a howling werewolf roaming the estate, well, it’s a lot to juggle, and without just the right touch can start to drift into hammy Disney stage territory.
There’s no shortage of brilliance in production design, with Daniel Maclean Wagner’s lighting and Bray Poor’s sound effects creating altered states for the hilarity that manages to ensue. The costumes designed by David Zinn steal the show, and deserve a well-earned round of applause, as do the chorus of backstage dressers. The severely drab gray house keeper’s dress and over-the-top, gone with the mighty wind get-up for Lady Enid more than compensate for the titillating-spoiler alert – attire of the Egyptian princess.
The long, somewhat narrow theater seating at Crystal City continues to be a challenge.. An important stage left sight gag was unfortunately lost on the entire outer rim of the audience, no matter how closely they were seated to the stage.
This season, Arena Stage pulled off one of the most technically challenging feats in Washington theatre history, beginning the season in its SW home, breaking ground and beginning the extensive rebuild for a new $100 million plus facility,[view the construction here] while renovating and moving into its brand new Crystal City venue mid-season with hardly a hitch. How fitting that, as a finale, they give us this technically brilliant fun romp.
- Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
- When: Thru July 13. Tuesday, Wednesdays Sunday at 7:30, Thursday – Saturday at 8 pm. Saturday and Sundays matinees at 2pm
- Where: Arena Stage – Restaged. 1800 South Bell, in complex with the Crystal City Marriott, Crystal City, VA
- Tickets: $50-66
Call: (202) 488-3300 or consult the website.