A Great Goulash Of Comedy—THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP at Hedgerow Theatre

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

Okay, start with an homage to Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” throw in a large portion of Victorian melodrama, Ibsen’s GHOSTS and (why the hell not) a smattering of the Bard; add a touch of “Wuthering Heights” and you might have an idea what THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP is all about. But, then again, you might not…

Carl Smith and Joel Guerrero star in THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP at Hedgerow Theatre. (Photo credit: Ashley LaBonde of Wide Eyed Studios)

Carl Smith and Joel Guerrero star in THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP at Hedgerow Theatre. (Photo credit: Ashley LaBonde of Wide Eyed Studios)

And who really cares, the whole point is to have fun. And fun it is. From February 27th through to April 6th, THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP will be running in the theatre’s 19th century grist mill and is directed by Jared Reed, the company’s Artistic Director. The title of the play was taken from the name of a character in the 1915 French movie serial Les Vampires and is an anagram for the word, “vampire.” Rose Valley’s Hedgerow Theatre has picked the perfect production to get us through this last bit of dreadful winter: an all out farce that happens to be subtitled “A Penny-Dreadful.”

Sort of a pre-cursor to comic books, a penny-dreadful was a serialized story that appeared in Britain during the Victorian era and usually featured lots of lurid plotlines. They were printed on cheap pulp paper and appealed to the working-class, especially adolescents. Playwright Charles Ludlam took this concept and adapted it to the stage, while mixing in a great deal of “camp.” Two actors tackle a total of eight characters (male and female) in this wild ride that made its debut in New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1984, with Ludlam and his life-partner Everett Quinton starring. It was an instant success, running for almost two years. In spite of all the silliness, Ludlam did have a method to his madness. As he put it: “Our slant was actually to take things very seriously, especially focusing on those things held in low esteem by society and revaluing them, giving them new meaning, new worth, by changing their context.” Ludlam had several other popular productions with his Ridiculous Theatrical Company, but THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP was the most successful, with productions throughout the US and around the world since its premiere. Sadly, Mr. Ludlam died in 1987 from AIDS complications at the age of 44.

The plot isn’t really all that important; it’s the fun of watching the two performers as they do their split-second changes from one character to another. The action (and there’s a ton of it) unfolds at Mandacrest, the creepy country estate of Lord Edgar—an Egyptologist. Mandacrest, situated on the moors (of course!), may or may not be haunted by the Lord’s first wife, Irma Vep. Also on hand is Lord Edgar’s second wife, Lady Enid, as well as Jane (the loyal housekeeper) and Nicodemus—a Heathcliff-like crippled groundskeeper. Actors Carl N. Smith and Joel Guerrero pop back and forth between characters with lightning speed—and the assistance of an ace stage crew, who rightfully get a curtain call at the end.

Guerrero and Smith are hilarious counterfoils to each other; the fact they grew up together in San Angelo, TX probably helps. They studied acting together, and have a terrific chemistry and actor shorthand due to their long association. It’s clear director Jared Reed took full advantage of both of these elements as he guided them thru the challenges the script presents. His deft touch is evident throughout, but he keeps things from veering off into caricature, which would be deadly for this piece. A well-established friendship is clearly evident between actors and director and it allows for a very free-wheeling, anything goes approach to the material. And the audience reaps the reward in non-stop laughs.

Carl Smith and Joel Guerrero star in THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP at Hedgerow Theatre. (Photo credit: Ashley LaBonde of Wide Eyed Studios)

Carl Smith and Joel Guerrero star in THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP at Hedgerow Theatre. (Photo credit: Ashley LaBonde of Wide Eyed Studios)

Abetting the three in this Herculean task is a design team that seems to have had as much fun as the performers. Constance Case and Alisa Kleckner have assembled some fabulous 1920s era ensembles for both the male and female characters. They look great, but the true accomplishment is how well Guerrero and Smith can get in and out of them. The requisite dimming lights and lightning flashes were created by Lighting Designer Rusty Davenport and Patrick Lamborn has assembled a suitably eerie (yet funny) soundscape. The insanity all plays out on Chris Kleckner’s set that morphs from the drawing room at Mandacrest to an ancient Egyptian tomb. And kudos to the aforementioned stage crew for their amazing contribution: Linda Hertzog, Colleen Marker, Caitlyn & Moira McKniff and Brock Vickers.

I have to admit my sides hurt by the end of the performance—I had laughed so hard for two hours. Don’t let this relentlessly bad weather scare you away, ski over to Hedgerow if you have to. You will be so glad you did, because Messrs. Guerrero and Smith will thoroughly entertain you in THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP.

by Charles Ludlum
Directed by Jared Reed
February 27—April 6, 2014
Hedgerow Theatre
64 Rose Valley Road
Media, PA


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