Ambler’s Act II Playhouse has found the perfect confection to present at this time of year. Subtitled “A Penny Dreadful,” Charles Ludlam’s VEP is an homage to/satire of those cheap Victorian serial novels that were so popular in their day—with a healthy dose of digs at Hitchcock’s film “Rebecca”, as well as a little “Gaslight” and “Nosferatu” thrown in for fun. There’s even a smattering of the Bard—the whole thing adds up to 2 hours of insanity. It’s a little bit bawdy, but nothing so bad you can’t take your teens to see it.
THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP was first produced by Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, opening off-off-Broadway in New York City’s Greenwich Village. It featured Ludlam and his life-partner Everett Quinton; who, along with their crew, won a special Drama Desk award for their work on the production. The play opened in September 1984 and ran until April 1986. It features a total of eight characters that are intended to be performed by only two actors. Each performer switches costumes—and gender—at lightning speed. (In order to ensure the cross-dressing is a part of every production, rights to perform the play include a stipulation that the actors must be of the same sex.)
A large part of the fun is seeing if the two performers can pull it all off.
Dito van Reigersberg and Luigi Sottile are certainly up to the task. They work with each other beautifully—and to hilarious effect. Of course, van Riegersberg has a slight advantage over Sottile—he’s performed as drag diva Martha Graham Cracker for several years now. But Sottile gives him a run for his money, I must say. It’s campy, vampy fun.
The characters include Lady Enid (Reigersberg), the new mistress of Mandecrest Estate, who was an actress. Then there are the household servants: the maid Jane Twisden (Sottile), who is very loyal to the former mistress (the titular Irma Vep) and Nicodemus Underwood (Reigersberg), a foundling with a wooden leg (here, we have a nod to Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights.”) Lady Enid’s husband, Lord Edgar (Sottile) is an Egyptologist—so we get to visit a mummy’s tomb in Act 2 (where a beautiful mummy comes to life—or does she?). The point here isn’t the plot; it’s the fun of watching two actors gallop thru 95 minutes of sheer silliness at breakneck speed. One can only imagine how exhausted they are at the end of the performance.
On top of this feat of acting dexterity, we have the requisite lightning, fog, dimming lights and mysterious footsteps. There is A LOT going on here. Act II’s tech crew should have taken a curtain call; they work just as hard as the two actors to pull this whole thing off. There were a couple of opening night missteps, but who cares. It was a hoot for my friend and I, and I’m sure things will get smoother and tighter as the run progresses.
Dirk Durossette has done a great job of creating a Victorian English drawing room on the Act II stage. It was fun to study it as we waited for the performance to start—the slightly off-kilter angles of the doors and trim warning the viewer that we’re in for something odd here. Jim Leitner’s lighting design is spot-on, hitting all the necessary elements of spooky. And Alisa Sickora Kleckner’s costumes are a feat of engineering! She gets just the right look of the era, AND makes them so Reigersberg and Sottile can fly in and out of them on a dime. James Sugg’s sound design adds the perfect note of humor to the whole mix.
Now, let’s talk about Harriet Power’s direction… Can I just admit right now that I have a girl-crush on Ms. Power? Everything that I have seen her direct has been wonderful; her attention to detail is flawless, as is her ability to deftly layer in elements without getting too heavy-handed. And she must have a killer sense of humor—the things she has her actors do are always inventively hilarious. I’d love to hang out with her some time, just to observe the fun.
So if you’re looking for pure escapist fare to segue way into the winter months, Act II’s THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP may be your cup of tea. And just what is that mystery? I’m not telling.
THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP
By Charles Ludlam
Directed by Harriet Power
October 25 – November 19, 2011
Act II Playhouse
56 E. Butler Avenue
Ambler, PA 19002