Guest director Jim McKain has embarked upon a masterpiece of theatre and executed it to perfection in The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful. The archetypal parody of apprehension and fright; the play is an over-the-top Halloween farce complete with mummies, vampires, werewolves, and Englishmen (er, women).
The show is prefaced by a disclaimer in the program that its other actors can’t make the show, and so the two remaining players must take on the challenge of performing a variety of different roles. I daresay it is a clever beginning to a rollicking, edge of your seat horror romp of a show. It’s spectacle, theatrics!… mysterious, macabre, spooky, absurd, and zany all in one. Lending a touch of Gothicism, it’s pure, unadulterated camp. And it works very well, from top to bottom.
Originally played by two men swapping male and female roles, the cast featuring Ben Beck and Anna Perilo is as dynamic as it gets. The pair play off each other so seamlessly that it is near perfection and their rapport and bond as actors help them to deliver hilarious comedy with aplomb. A menagerie of characters, (eight to be exact), successfully switch on a dime. Ah, the art of the quick change. With the aid of backstage dressers, the production goes off without a hitch.
The Mystery of Irma Vep transports the audience back to 1890’s Yorkshire, England, to the gothic Hillcrest manor of Mandacrest Estate. A play on Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, the show engulfs you in a mysterious, uncanny setting with eccentric characters and a twisted plot. Jane Twisden, a meddling maid has quite the disdain for Enid, the new lady of the house who has married Lord Edgar after the passing of his beloved wife Irma. She hangs above the fireplace, immortalized in a portrait that seems to stare down at them every evening. This frightens the living daylights out of Enid, and she demands for its removal. Her one act of contempt bodes ill for Mandacrest. Oh, the horror! (Cue the element of surprise). When the eternal flame from a lit candle is snuffed out, strange happenings begin to occur.
Nicodemus Underwood, a bit deranged and off-color lame swineherd with a wooden leg is always making unwanted advances towards Jane and leering at her, all the while looking over his shoulder, on high alert for a ravenous and legendary wolf. The ghost of Irma lurks, but an even more sinister, blood-thirsty character is wreaking havoc in the night. Several far-fetched and outrageous scenarios unfold, including an expedition to Egypt to unearth the tomb of a princess shrouded in mysticism. Little does Lord Edgar realize that Alcazar, the tour guide, is a swindler and the master of artifice.
Beck is purely versatile in his talents as he flawlessly switches from character to character. His prowess exemplifies he’s very skilled at playing the opposite sex, comically so, and just as good as playing the male roles of Nicodemus or Alcazar. Perilo is a tour de force with her quick wit, and transitions from Jane to Edgar to a vampire, back to Edgar. Both Beck and Perilo garnered laughs the whole night long from their quirky antics and impeccable timing, never missing a beat.
A mini deep dive into the dramaturgy behind the production:
The playwright, Charles Ludlam, who founded “ridiculous theatre,” centered this work around camp and the underground queer theatre movement, aiming to bring awareness to a space where it often went unnoticed without acknowledgment. Ludlam referred to absurd theatre as a “cultural recycling,” evolution in society. According to Ludlam, “Moral paradox is the crux of drama.” Taken from the Manifesto itself, he believed that farce illustrated “hedonistic calculus and exhibited bathos,” the sorrowful becoming the comic.
References abound in Irma Vep. Both literary and cinematic, they allude to Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, Hitchcock, and Dracula, as well as any other manner of gothic horror literature and films. The themes are glaring yet brilliant, as you quickly catch clever puns, punchlines, and double entendre. Egyptology, lycanthropy, and psychopathy are all reoccurring tropes that make the play even more madcap and enjoyable.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what ties the whole production together: undoubtedly the tailored breakaway costumes. Intentionally garish, they achieve a purpose-Lady Enid’s gown is meant to be a vulgar shade of Pepto Bismol pink because she is a caricature in and of herself (er, himself). With the characters in drag the whole evening, save for Jane and Nicodemus, costume designer Lindsay Pape hits the nail on the head with her expertise in tailoring and design.
The set by resident New York scenic designer Matthew Hamel (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) with accolades spanning from The Muny to the Rose Theatre, has created the work of campy gothic twisted “Haunted Mansion” meets eccentric and lavish Victorian architecture and décor. Throughout the show it creatively suffices for an Egyptian tomb.
The Mystery of Irma Vep runs in the Howard Drew Theatre through November 7th. Tickets can be purchased at $36 for members of the public and $26 for OCP season subscribers. Prices vary by performance. Tickets available for purchase by phone at (402) 553-0800, online at OmahaPlayhouse.com or in person at the OCP Box Office, 6915 Cass St., Omaha, NE 68132