The Mystery of Irma Vep; a penny dreadful by Charles Ludlam. Directed by Wendy Walraven.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...Curse of the Druids."
Justina Trova as Lord Edgar and Alexia Trainor as Lady Enid; photo provided
A penny dreadful is a story written to tantalize and frighten, often published on cheap paper with second-rate illustrations, available at newsstands for a penny in the Victorian age. The idea was to provide cheap thrills to lower-class readers. They were extremely popular.
Likewise the horror genre of the early thirties in Hollywood provided a similar experience with stories of mummies, werewolves and vampires that could be inexpensively produced without star names and sell tickets across a depression-era countryside. These were also very popular.
Playwright Charles Ludlam, in 1984, combined both concepts into a play that provides a third gimmick, one that had been just as popular on stage in the period that spanned the Victorian to the depression, that of the quick-change artist who could play many roles in one scene and do it without a break in dialogue or dramatic development. To all of this he added Daphne DuMaurierís classic novel and film, "Rebecca" as well as Alfred Hitchcockís take on the play "Angel Street" which became the film "Gaslight" and created "The Mystery of Irma Vep." Oddly enough, Irma herself is almost a non-existent character in the play, rather like Rebecca in the DuMaurier. Without a flashback, her two appearances are of paramount importance to the plot, such as it is, and without a personal reality, she is a dramatic force that completes the cycle of horror and intimidation.
Obviously this play has something for everyone and, as in all of Ludlamís Ridiculous Theater Company plays, there is a great deal of comedy to the proceedings. This one is filled with laughs and even the one musical moment, a dulcimer played vocal duet, is borderline hilarious. In this production the sweetness of the moment almost overwhelms the piece, but that may be because the two actresses playing the eight roles in the show at Main Street Stage in North Adams are sisters and their vocal blending suddenly is what the show is about. That only last a minute.
Justina Trova opens the play in the role of Jane Twisden, the housekeeper at Mandecrest, an ancient home on the moors. Her angular face and her broad accent provide just enough drama to keep us on the edge of our seats. Clearly, as she moves about the room, admiring the portrait of poor, dead Irma Vep, she is a creature fabricated from the elements of another time and place. Her fellow servant, the wooden-legged Nicodemus Underwood, played by Alexia Trainor, is a romantic figure, a servant who would lay down his life for his master and the lady of the house.
Trainor next appears as Lady Enid, the new wife of Lord Edgar. Busty and blonde, a former "actress", Lady Enid is not as convincing a character as Nicodemus. Trova, on the other hand, as the wolf-hunting husband, is right on and most believable. Later, in an act set in the tombs of Egypt, Trainor becomes the guide, Alcazar, and again wins us over to her darker side.
Both women manage the near-impossible, playing scenes with themselves, as well as with one another, changing wigs, hats, facial expressions and voices expertly and quickly. Sometimes there are full costume changes in a blink of an eye. They are aided in this by an off-stage crew of female stage-hands who also dance a delicious scene change minute and a half as Egypt is struck and Mandecrest comes back for a final act. Under the guiding hand and eye of director Wendy Walraven, this is all handles with finesse.
No one will ever claim that the Ludlam play is a masterwork. It is a bit of nonsense calling up in our memories so many of the old movies we know. This was Ludlamís art. What he has given us, in this play, is a wonderful way to wile away two hours without worrying about deep meaning or understanding humanity. He just wants us to have fun, and in this production that is exactly what we have - fun.
"You donít hate me, but you donít like me," Lady Enid says at one point. That may sum up the experience of this show. This is the fifth production Iíve seen, including the 1984 original, and the first one in which the roles have been played by two women. Men can often parody women with a strange sensibility that works, but women have a much more difficult time bringing off the male characters they assume. In the case of this production Justina Trova does very well as Lord Edgar and Alexia Trainor manages to make Nicodemus believable in spite of a costume that shows off her ample bosom. It is their women that have more difficulty, particularly Trainorís Lady Enid. I didnít hate her, but I didnít like her either. This was the one bad portrait in the play, for me. Somehow I couldnít believe in her, except during that lovely dulcimer duet of The Last Rose of Summer.
The set, design uncredited, is perfect for the play. Walravenís costumes work very well, except for the Nicodemus shirt and the lighting by Frank LaFrazia is moody and appropriate. Kelli Newbyís props are as funny as anything else in the play, particularly the mummy case, the dead wolf and the limp body of the assaulted Lady Enid.
What you get in North Adams is a deliciously inane evening of mild thrills and funny lines, quirky characters and the endless nostalgia for the horror films of bygone days. The laughter rarely ceases and the mystery of Irma Vep (think anagrams for a moment) is revealed, solved and resolved before you leave the theater. What could be better than that during this Halloween season!
Alexia Trainor as Alcazar
Justina Trova as Jane Twisden
"The Mystery of Irma Vep" runs at Main Street Stage, 57 Main Street, North Adams Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm through November 10. There is a community performance (pay what you can) on Thursday, November 1. For information or tickets call 413-663-3240 or go to their website at www.mainstreetstage.org.