Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2003
The current production of his melodramatic parody The Mystery of Irma Vep at the Theater Barn undoubtedly has the late playwright Charles Ludlam (1943-1987) rolling in his grave. Rolling with laughter that is! Nay, more than just rolling. Probably thrashing violently in order to resurrect himself and personally congratulate director Bert Bernardi and performers Jimmy Johansmeyer and Cyrus Shams for so perfectly capturing the darkly campy spirit of his work. This is quintessential Ludlam.
While there is much to admire and applaud in this production, the real key is the casting. Johansmeyer and Shames play all the parts – male and female – in an action packed evening featuring vampires, werewolves, mummies, deranged housekeepers, dead wives, and a cross-eyed man with a wooden leg. “Irma Vep” is a cross-dressing send-up of every conceivable genre of melodrama, horror, and mystery ever presented on page, stage, or screen. A hit ever since its Drama Desk and Obie award-winning 1984 New York production, “Irma Vep” is the most frequently performed of Ludlam’s many plays.
In a 1998 review of a production of Grease at the Theatre Barn I wrote “If [Jimmy] Johansmeyer hasn't performed in a Charles Ludlam show, someone ought to cast him quick. He projects an off-beat sexuality which is at once disturbing and hilarious.” Well, what took so long?? Actually, Johansmeyer has been absent from the Theater Barn stage these past few years, focusing more on his burgeoning career as a costume designer. It is great to see him back and in a vehicle so right for his peculiar but substantial talents. Johansmeyer is rubber-faced and over-the-top, sinister and silly as a proper lower-class Victorian housekeeper and as the studly Egyptologist Lord Edgar Hillcrest.
But once I heard that my excellent advice had been heeded, I had a hard time imagining that there could be an actor with similar and complementary talents to play opposite Johansmeyer. I could not have been more tickled with Shams – a member of the United States Fencing Team and a humor writer who is making his professional stage debut in this production. What a find! Shams is delightfully coy as Lady Enid Hillcrest, and just downright hilarious as the cross-eyed, wooden-legged Nicodemus, not to mention his brief moment as a topless resurrected female mummy. His program bio encourages me to come back in the fall to see him in Fully Committed. I fully intend to, and I encourage you to book tickets for this show and that one too.
Bernardi and the performers really get Ludlam. They obviously love playing his words and his characters. You will not have the benefit of the very thorough press kit I was provided, which contained a detailed biography of Ludlam, his Ridiculous Theatre Company, and the “penny dreadful” genre of Victorian literature spoofed in Irma Vep, but I got the distinct feeling from Bernardi’s pre-curtain speech that he could easily tell you all that and more if you just asked him. He’s the guy selling the 50/50 raffle tickets in the lobby.
Abe Phelps has designed a clever set which reduces the already small Theater Barn stage to a thin downstage sliver, forcing the action right into the audience’s laps. Much shady business goes on in The Mystery of Irma Vep but none of it happens in the shadows, thanks to the set and Allen Phelps fine lighting design.
Johansmeyer has also designed the wonderful costumes for this show. There is a moment in the second act when, as Lord Edgar, he changes costume on stage in order to perform a resurrection ceremony on the aforementioned topless female mummy. As he unfolds and dons the splendid Egyptian gear, his own delight in his designs and the illusion they so swiftly and easily create is apparent. The dress he has made for his appearances as Jane the Housekeeper, as well as the many elegant creations Shams wears as Lady Enid, show an excellent eye for fitting a figure. No effort is made to pad the actors above or below the waist for the female roles. The dresses simply fit and flatter their bodies, in a way that all clothes ideally should.
The costumes for Irma Vep require a substantial investment in Velcro. I mentioned in my last Mac-Haydn review that the dressers deserved a round of applause, and that is certainly the case here too. The changes of costume and gender are lightening fast and require a several steady pairs of hands backstage. Columbia County must be a favorite summertime haunt for professional theatrical dressers, since there seem to be so many fine ones on the job!
The Mystery of Irma Vep runs through July 20 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs an hour and forty-five minutes with one intermission. There are things in the show which would be frightening to children under eight, but older ones will LOVE this. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003