The Mystery of Irma Vep by Charles Ludlam. Directed by Kevin G. Coleman.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...to shape and bend my soul."
Ryan Winkles as Lord Edgar and Josh Aaron McCabe as Lady Enid; photo: Kevin Sprague
In my youth, in New York City, no event was more anticipated and enjoyed in that anticipation, then the opening of a new Charles Ludlam play. At his Greenwich Village theater there would be a festive atmosphere no matter the subject matter of the work on stage. In the dark, in that audience, for a few hours nothing real would remain real as Ludlam and his company would perform an alternate reality making it both touching and hilarious, allowing us to feel that the world we inhabited was only a dream and this odd other place on the stage before us was the only thing that was real. That was his joyous gift to the world and in no other play than the one now on stage at Shakespeare & Companyís Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre did he succeed to such an extent.
This is all the more unusual in that the many characters seen on this stage are all portrayed by just two men who make lightning costume and character changes to portray at least nine characters. In the skilled hands of director Kevin G. Coleman those two men perform this outrageous melange of familiar roles in a more modest, more realistic than normal, way, eschewing yoks for titters, hilarity for humanity.
Josh Aaron McCabe and Ryan Winkles both cross genders and even have conversations among themselves in bringing Irma Vep (an anagrammatical name) to life for us. Who, and what, she was is a crux issue for the many characters who transpose favorite moments from "Gaslight" and "Rebecca" into very personal points for this play. Abbott and Costello may have met the Wolfman in a film, but here it is the Wolfman who meets his comic maker. What Ludlam gives to his actors is a chance to spotlight these and so many more familiar images in a world of their own. Even the Mummy gets into the act and her sellerís eye-patch is a miraculous testament to the nonsense of the evening. McCabe shines as Lady Enid Hillcrest, the new second wife of Winkles Lord Edgar, an English Anthropologist who has not been true to his calling. Lady Enid is all blonde curls and Music Hall anecdotes. McCabe twitters and giggles and brings an utterly delightful femininity to the role while Winkles manages to be all manly and assertive, a gun-toting aristocrat with an arch manner.
Winkles and McCabe as Jane Twisden and Nicodemus; photo: Kevin Sprague
In their other principal roles, Winkles takes the housekeeper Jane Twisden into the realm of a Judith Anderson in denial and McCabe is the gameskeeper Nicodemus Underwood who sleeps in the barn with his wooden leg clutched to his bosom. Winkles gives a seriousness to Jane that ultimately makes her all the more dangerous to Lady Enid while McCabe manages one transformation after another as Nicodemus until we are nearly blinded by the suddenness of them all.
On Kristopher Karstedtís perfect sets wearing quick-change costumes by Kara D Midlam and abetted by moody and selective lighting designed by Stephen Ball, the company in Lenox manages to amuse, titillate, entertain, frighten, and exalt the art of quick-change theatricality for an audience that may not know what to expect next. For this reviewer, having witnessed it all before (and not just once but many times) this edition of Irma Vep is a slow-take rendition of a lightening fast presentation of that other world Ludlam so loved to show us.
The Mystery of Irma Vep plays at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Shakespeare & Company campus on Kemble Street in Lenox, Massachusetts through March 27. For schedule and tickets contact the box office at 413-637-1199.