In the plays by the late Charles Ludlam, founder of New York’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, it’s pretty difficult to go too far over the top. But in the current production of his most produced play, The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful at Theatre Arlington, B.J. Cleveland and Todd Hart come awfully close to that line, which makes it all the more riotous.
Cleveland has always been a master mugger, and in more recent shows at Uptown Players in Dallas, has shown that he’s a much more versatile actor than some gave him credit for. Here, he gets to let all the silliness out, in a performance that reminds of Tim Conway’s antics with Harvey Korman on The Carol Burnett Show.
And in this case, with Hart in the Korman role, it’s amazing that, at least at the Sunday matinee, he didn’t break character to stifle laughter.
Ludlam specialized in pastiches of styles and famous authors, and in Irma Vep he works Gothic horror/penny dreadfuls, farce and Victorian melodrama into a whirlpool of camp and spooky chills.
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Two actors of the same gender play eight different roles of both genders, because cross-dressing is part of the fun (they are almost always played by two men because we, for some reason, find men dressed as women more comical than the other way around).
Set in an English manor, murders and mysterious identities lead several characters on a quest — including a trip to an ancient tomb in Egypt — to find answers about the question posed in the title.
True to penny dreadful style, there are also several monsters: werewolves, ghosts, mummies, etc. Hart’s characters include maid Jane, Lord Hillcrest (an Egyptologist, of course) and “An Intruder”; Cleveland plays groundskeeper Nicodemis, Lady Enid and others.
On a detailed set of a drawing room in an English manor (by Anthony Curtis) and in terrific costumes by Ric Dreumont Leal, David Wilson-Brown is billed as director, but given that Cleveland and Hart are both skilled comedy directors (as well as former Theatre Arlington administrators; Cleveland was artistic director for 16 years, and Hart was executive director), it’s a good guess they had as much input into directorial decisions as Wilson-Brown.
Repetition, precise physical comedy, sight gags and perfect punch line delivery are paramount to this kind of comedy, and both Hart and Cleveland deliver the goods. Cleveland’s vocal twittering and feet shuffling as Lady Enid are particularly hysterical, as is Hart’s emotionless face as Jane.
Bill Eickenloff’s stormy sound design adds to the mood, but more stylized dark/light contrast in Kyle Harris’ lights would enhance the campy horror.
The Mystery of Irma Vep has been popular in regional theater because it is, like penny dreadfuls themselves, filled with cheap thrills. If you miss this production, the horror! The horror!