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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Mystery of Irma Vep
By Chesley Plemmons

A man who enjoys wearing women's clothes, can't be all bad
— Lady Enid, addressing one of her husband's peculiarities.
Irma Vep

Bill Bowers and Tom Hewitt in The Mystery of Irma Vep (Photo by Emily Faulkner)
Choosing to open the 2014 season, with Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep was a stroke of serious ridiculousness for the Berkshire Theatre Group. That's ridiculous as in Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company which was a unique off-Broadway group that began in the late 1960's and continued until some years after his death in the mid-80's.

Founded and nourished by Ludlam and his partner in life and art, Everett Quinton, the troupe performed outrageously ridiculous productions written by Ludlum. They spoofed classic horror stories, grand opera – including Gallas a hilarious take-off on temperamental diva Maria Callas; and English suspense stories such as Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Ladies in Retirement and Night Must Fall. Irma Vep, however, became Ludlam's signature work and the splendid new production in Stockbridge brought back fond memories of nearly 35 years ago when I attended one of the first performances in a small, downstairs theatre near Sheridan Square in New York City's Greenwich Village. Adapted for the Berkshire Group by Aaron Mark, who also directed this production, this is a hilarious mashup of classic scenes from famous movies and Victorian thrillers.

With spectacularly agile, multi-faceted and multi-faced, performances by Bill Bowers and Tom Hewitt, who play all seven roles making nano-second costume changes, this is as much a marvel of stagecraft as it is of camp comedy. The opening sets a tone similar to the opening of PBS's television series, Masterpiece Mystery, with lighting and thunder crashing outside a spooky, ornate mansion. Mandacrest, by name, it sits by a foggy, mysterious moor that may or may not be home to werewolves or worse. (Think Hound of the Baskervilles).

As the play opens, Lord Edgar Hillcrest, (Bowers) an Egyptologist, is bringing home to Mandacrest (ok, maybe Manderley), his new bride, Enid (Hewitt). On hand to greet her (and perhaps scare the petals off her bridal bouquet) are the prim, secretive, and always tippling maid, Jane Twisden, (Bowers, again) - and the one-legged, hunchback handyman, Nicodemus Underwood (Hewitt, again.)

There are plenty of laughs and gasps as the two actors whirl in and out of costume and character while parodying the source material with razor sharp wit. When Jane slyly suggested to Lady Enid what to wear for her first night inthe family mansion, you can almost hear Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers whispering something similar to the new mistress of Manderley.

The play takes an international junket to a tomb in the depths of an Egyptian pyramid where Lord Edgar seeks a solution to the mysteries around him with the help of Alcazar (Hewitt), who could have stepped out of Boris Karloff's old thriller, The Mummy. They discover a voluptuous, still lively mummy/cum belly dancer (Bowers) who attempts to seduces Lord Edgar (or himself, if you realize that they're both played by Bowers!!)

The costumes provided byWade Laboissonniere are colorful and high camp in themselves. I suspect there must be a lot of velcro backstage. Randall Parsons has provided an atmospheric grand room including a portrait of Irma, which keeps changing (and sometimes bleeding). Think Laura or maybe Portrait of Dorian Gray.

The actors also delight by assuming the persona of actors who originated the characters and stories parodied. In addition to Karloff and Anderson, there are hints of Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier among others.

Irma Vep is a grand romp and great fun for all — there are werewolves, vampires and ghosts –Oh my! The biggest guffaws will come from those in the audience old enough to recognize most, if not all, of the dramatic cliches. As for the kids — a slam dunk.

The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful by Charles Ludlam
Directed by Aaron Mark
Cast: Bill Bowers (Jane Twisden, Lord Edgar Hillcrest, An Intruder), Tom Hewitt (Nicodemus Underwood, Lady Enid Hillcrest, Alcazar)
Costumes: Wade Laboissonniere
Lighting design; Alan C. Edwards
Composer: Our Lady J
Stage Manager: Stephen Horton
Running Time: Approx 2 hours
The Fitzpatrick Main Stage, Stockbridge From 6/24/14; opening 6/28/14; closing 7/19/14
Performances are Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and matinees Saturdays at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $42 to $62.
Reviewed by Chesley Plemmons on June 28th
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