Theater Review: THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP (Actors Co-op in Hollywood)

by Tony Frankel on November 3, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles

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Back in the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in merry ole England. The working class was becoming more educated and printing was becoming more affordable. To quench the thirst of the masses for every day diversions, “penny dreadfuls” hit the scene. These serialized fictional publications, sold for a penny, usually featured tales of the bizarre and lurid variety aimed at the younger generation who couldn’t afford the upper class offerings of authors such as Charles Dickens (the publication gave rise to Sweeney Todd). Over time the term came to represent any form of cheap sensational and tawdry entertainment for the commoners.

Now Actors Co-op brings a “penny dreadful” of the theatrical ilk to the stage with their production of the The Mystery of Irma Vep, which is filled with raucous and ribald humor of the low brow kind. Written by Charles Ludlam and originally produced Off-Broadway by his Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1984 the show won many accolades and ran for several years — and because it’s a showcase for a mere two actors, still produced quite often. This production vacillates between very very good and very wrong.

The time is Victorian England between the wars and the action unfolds in the library drawing room of Mandacrest — the haunted estate of Lord Edgar and Lady Enid Hillcrest — and around Egypt. A send up of horror films, melodramas, classic literature and all things spooky, Mr. Ludlam throws in everything but the kitchen sink including vampires, werewolves, mummies and assorted sundries that go bump in the night.

The script has both actors playing a total of seven roles crossing all gender lines, and features a series of quick changes. In the original outing, the septet was played by Mr. Ludlam and his life-partner Everett Quinton. As the playwright, Mr. Ludlam understood the vaudevillian underpinnings of the script and knew exactly how to play them out to outlandishly funny results. In order for the “sketchy” material to work, the performers must commit totally and play it completely straight even when the story reaches to extreme levels of absurdity. If the actors give even the slightest hint that they are in on the joke then the bubble is burst and the jokes fall flat.

Isaac Wade‘s Lady Enid has some very funny moments, with camp looks that are hysterical, and his accent for a groundskeeper is swell. But he plays the room like a Benny Hill episode (although he doesn’t play with the audience like Hill did); there’s a hint that he’s in on the joke with his indistinct characterization of a tour guide of sorts in Egypt; it really misses the mark. John Allee definitely gets the heartier laughs as the servant Jane Twisden as he is more character-based versus Wade’s sketchiness. They are clearly very talented performers. The pair has drawn seven very different characters and they have mastered the art of physical comedy and quick changes quite well. The production feels a little on the cheap side, but Vicki Conrad’s costume creations stood out. This is not director Carla Cackowski’s métier; her physical shtick just doesn’t play well, which makes our interest turn on and off. I see in her bio that she’s never directed a play, just sketch comedy and a one-woman comedy show. Ah, that explains it. The mystery of this Irma Vep solved!

photos by Matthew Gilmore

The Mystery of Irma Vep
Actors Co-op
The Crossley Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St.
(at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood)
Fri & Sat at 8; Sun at 2:30; some Sat’s at 2:30
ends on November 10, 2019
for tickets: 323.462.8460 or Actors Co-op

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