‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’

‘Vep’ is a vampish delight

The Sonoma County Repertory Theatre is clearly up to no good, and that’s great. With the help of local playwright and director Squire Fridell and under the inventive direction of Jennifer King and Scott Phillips, the Rep appears to be attempting a modern Luciferian miracle: the resurrection of one of the theater world’s most vilified, spurned, forgotten and disrespected art forms– namely, the old-fashioned melodrama.

Whether working from melodrama or exalting the theater of the ridiculous, it’s clear that the Rep has committed itself to bringing gothic, gasping fun back in high style. With the summer season over, Fridell and the Rep sink their teeth even further into the moldering corpse of the theatrical past, with a spirited staging of Charles Ludlam’s genre-bending satire The Mystery of Irma Vep, a 1984 comedy that in part pays homage to the penny dreadful, a kind of theatrical cousin to the classic melodrama.

Once popular, though generally maligned by the critics and the elite, penny dreadfuls and shilling shockers–also called “bloods,” a fitting nickname for cheaply produced serialized novels that were steeped in ghoulish sensationalism, packed with elements of horror, supernatural doings and grotesque descriptions of murder–flourished in the Victorian era, first in Britain and later in America, where they were less flashily known as dime novels. The Demon Barber himself, bad old Sweeney Todd (later made almost acceptable by Stephen Sondheim), began his icky-sticky life as a penny dreadful. Other notable titles of the time bore such pungent names as Vice and Its Victim, The Death Grasp and The Feast of Blood.

By the early 1900s, such stuff had fallen out of favor in America and England, but for more than half a century, the penny dreadful filled the seedier theaters of the English-speaking world with gloriously lurid images of vampires, ghosts, cannibals, insane surgeons and monsters of all kinds.

The Mystery of Irma Vep, which was a critical hit off-Broadway when it appeared in the mid-’80s (“Far and away the funniest two hours on stage” gushed the New York Times), is both a nod to the penny dreadful and a spoof of such high-art mediums as traditional theatrical traditions, literature and fine cinema. Ludlam loved to mix things up, and Fridell applauds this by employing two actors to play eight parts in a maelstrom of split-second costume changes.

While some subsequent productions have elected to use a cast of eight, the Rep keeps the two-actor, one-zillion-costume-change approach, which is no doubt exhausting for the performers but exhilarating for the audience. It also honors Ludlam’s original production–an amalgamated spoof of everything from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca to James Joyce to Frankenstein–in which he and his male lover were the only two actors onstage.

The plot (as if it matters) begins in a spooky Victorian mansion named Manderly and eventually moves on to the crypts of Egypt. Lord Edgar Hillcrest, an Egyptologist, along with his new bride, the Lady Enid, are thrown into a plot-twist labyrinth involving a dead wife, a potentially haunted portrait (that would be Irma), vampires, werewolves, mummies and, well, a lot of other dreadful and dreadfully funny horror-story icons.

The Rep hopes the production will catch on as quickly as have the melodramas in the park. In addition to more serious and original fare, this could be just the beginning of a whole string of funny, gooey, productions to grace–and stain–the stage of the Rep’s little Main Street Theatre. We certainly hope so. Sweeney Todd, anyone?

‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’ plays at the Sonoma County Repertory Theatre Sept. 9-11, 16-19, 23-25 and Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at 8pm. Special 2pm matinee also on Sept. 19. 104 N. Main St., Sebastopol. $15-$18; Sept. 16, pay what you can. 707.823.0177.

From the September 8-14, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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