Theater review: 'The Mystery of Irma Vep' at Space916
Should costumes upstage the players of a low-budget romp? Yes, if the romp in question is Charles Ludlam’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” a penny dreadful burlesque requiring a couple of nimble actors and a dresser with the steely nerves and steady hands of an emergency room nurse.
This 1984 quick-change caper, sending up horror movies with the same insouciance that it tackles gothic romance, is affectionately performed by Michael Lorre (who also served as director and set designer) and Kevin Remington (who also designed the costumes) in a remount of last year’s critically acclaimed staging. Now at SPACE916, this Deconstructed Productions revival (co-presented with Celebration Theatre) contrasts with the usual breathless approach that turns Ludlam's two-hander into an exhausting bout of theatrical calisthenics.
Flamboyant camp is still the name of the game, but Lorre and Remington don’t oversell the antics as they transform themselves into servants and masters, humans and monsters (a werewolf, vampire and busty sarcophagus play crucial roles). Instead they settle on a humorous style — two parts Joan Crawford, one part Carol Burnett — that treats the far-fetched shenanigans as ordinary occurrences and the ludicrous drag, some of it bestial, as everyday garb.
Lorre switches dexterously between Lady Enid, the anxious new mistress of the English estate Mandacrest, who finds herself caught in a tense plot not unlike Hitchcock's “Rebecca,” and Nicodemus, the one-legged stable hand who against his will pushes the action in a howling Lon Chaney Jr. direction. Meanwhile, Remington, so brusquely amusing as Jane, the no-nonsense housekeeper obsessively maintaining a shrine to the wife Enid has replaced, morphs into Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist with a thing for mummies, as though the two characters were just a few wardrobe pieces and eccentric mannerisms apart.
To recap the story line would be to risk one's mental health. Just note that the lampoon — originally brought to life in a legendary madcap pas de deux by Ludlam, who died from AIDS-related causes in 1987, and his real-life-partner Everett Quinton at New York's Ridiculous Theatrical Company — is leavened with a movie buff’s love and a theater maven’s outrageousness. It's also crammed with enough literary references (to the Brontës, Shakespeare and even Oscar Wilde) to keep a librarian with a warped sense of humor in stitches, and a diabolical anagram (Irma Vep) is thrown in to boot.
There’s a mildness that prevents Lorre and Remington’s handling, played out on a set of black furniture adorably marked with chalk, from becoming an unfettered tour de force. (A few bald comic patches could use a directorial comb-over.) But the duo’s gentle playfulness has its own rewards — first and foremost, a chuckling sincerity. And the Houdini-like choreography of the outfits (aided by dresser Amanda Beck) defies all logical explanation.
-- Charles McNulty
"The Mystery of Irma Vep," SPACE916, 916 N. Formosa Ave., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends Sept. 4. $20 (323) 667-1304. irmavep.coupdetatllc.com. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Photos: Top: Michael Lorre and Kevin Remington. Bottom: Remington and Lorre. Credit: Cece Tio