THEATER REVIEW: The Mystery of Irma Vep at Shakespeare & Company



The Mystery of Irma Vep
By Charles Ludlam
Directed by Kevin G. Coleman
(Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass., $12 to $48)
A Shakespeare & Company production of a play in three acts
Josh Aaron McCabe as Nicodemus Underwood, Lady Enid Hillcrest, Alcazar, and Pev Amri
Ryan Winkles as Jane Twisden, Lord Edgar Hillcrest, and an intruder
Reviewed by Lesley Ann Beck
Two of the hardest-working—and funniest—actors in the Berkshires, Josh Aaron McCabe and Ryan Winkles, flounce, growl, and simper through eight roles, both human and other-wordly, in this very amusing production of Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep. Under the deft and inspired direction of Kevin G. Coleman, this over-the-top send-up of gothic horror films has been crafted into an evening of hilarious and irreverent theater-going.
The show begins in the well-appointed drawing room at Mandacrest Manor, where, in addition to the usual accouterments of Victorian décor, there is a particularly malevolent portrait hung over the marble mantelpiece and an unsettling collection of furred and feathered animal masks displayed on an adjacent wall. To the accompaniment of crashing thunder and the sound of rain, the audience sees Jane Twisden (portrayed by Winkles), feather duster in hand, tidying up the room. She (or he?) is joined by the other member of the Mandacrest household staff, the one-legged servant Nicodemus Underwood (played by McCabe) and they begin a conversation about their new mistress, Lady Enid, who has some unusual sleeping habits.
The first wife of Lord Edgar Hillcrest, Lady Irma (the Irma Vep of the play’s title), is now deceased, and Lord Edgar (another of Winkles’s characters) has brought his second wife, Lady Enid, to his ancestral home, Mandacrest Manor. The scary portrait, it turns out, is Lady Irma—just one of the reasons Lady Enid is wondering about her welcome at the chilling Mandacrest. Meanwhile, Lord Edgar is hunting the howling, slavering wolves who threaten the estate; Nicodemus must dispose of the carcass Lord Edgar drags home; and Jane the housekeeper tries to keep her dead mistress’s memory alive. As the plot, such as it is, unfolds, we hear clocks ticking, a cat screeching, gunshots, and howling. Campy doesn’t begin to describe it.  
McCabe and Winkles are a marvel to watch; each of their characters is fully developed, with a stance, voice, and mannerisms to go with the costumes that are whipped on and off with astonishing speed. McCabe’s Lady Enid is a delicate Victorian maiden, albeit with some quirks. As Nicodemus, he is a rough and ready gamekeeper type, and as Alcazar, he is slick. He also plays the female mummy Pev Amri (in a really clever costume). Winkles is enigmatic and vaguely menacing as the protective housekeeper Jane Twisden and then, moments later, his Sir Edgar is a gun-toting great white hunter. It must take great concentration to keep all the moving parts of this production straight; these two do it expertly, with a light comic touch that suits the play. 
The second act takes place in Egypt in an ancient tomb; Sir Edgar has travelled here in search of answers to his suspicions about a vampire, a search that leads him to Egyptian guide Alcazar (played by McCabe) and to the mummy of an Egyptian princess, Pev Amri (also McCabe). For the third act, the action returns to Mandacrest Manor and now involves ukulele playing and a werewolf. The plot takes more than a few unexpected twists; there are double and triple entendres, puns, quips, and clever literary references; Winkles and McCabe deliver it all with style. 
The rapid costume changes that are essential to this production are smoothly orchestrated: no small matter. The team of dressers assisting the actors in their transformations is excellent. Kara D. Midlam designed the costumes, and they are extremely successful both in evoking the proper period and mood as well as in changing the appearance of the actors from man to woman, from servant to aristocrat, from man to werewolf, and back again.
The set, designed by Kristopher Karstedt, is equally effective, and the change from Victorian estate to Egyptian tomb is cleverly done. Kudos go as well to Stephen Ball for the lighting design which aids and abets the quick changes, and the superb sound effects, from vagaries in the weather to howling beasts, all managed by Michael Pfeiffer.
The playwright, Charles Ludlam, is known for having established the Ridiculous Theatre Company back in the 1960s, where his outrageous productions of plays like The Mystery of Irma Vep were performed. “Ridiculous” is just the right word for this new production, in all its over-the-top-ness. As Lady Enid says, “Somehow it just doesn’t make sense.” Indeed. Engage the “willing suspension of disbelief” and enjoy this uproarious evening of theater. [March 2011]
Set and prop design by Kristopher Karstedt; Costume design by Kara Midlam; Lighting design by Stephen D. Ball; Sound design by Michael Pfeiffer; Wardrobe by Mary Readinger and Sophie Tannenbaum; Stage manager, Kate Johnson
(Through March 27; running time 2 hours, ten minutes, including one intermission)
Shakespeare & Company
Lenox, Mass.


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