The Mystery of Irma Vep is a curious, one might even say ridiculous, mystery because just about everyone enters the theater knowing her true identity. And if you don’t know, you figure it out pretty quickly. There will be no spoilers here regarding Cortland Repertory Theatre’s season finale, but scenic designer Jason Bolen’s gray-and-black two-dimensional set, with evocations of Edward Gorey, nudges you toward gothic horror. Two actors appear, shorter, thinner John DeSilvestri and bluffer Christopher Scheer, both with white fright makeup on their cheeks and sepulchral dark in their eye sockets. Only everyone is laughing, or at least chortling. Maybe nobody cares who Irma Vep is, but we do get involved in the quest to find out anyway.
The late playwright-producer Charles Ludlam proudly called his outfit the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. He did so in response to the dismissal of highbrow critic Brendan Gill, who said Ludlam’s madcap high-jinks weren’t farce or theater of the absurd but “absolutely ridiculous.” What Gill left out is that the ridiculous might be the hardest form of comedy of all, calling for lightning-fast costume changes, instant shifting from one accent to another as well as sliding up and down the vocal register from falsetto to basso. Not to mention sporting bare prosthetic breasts.
Ludlam designed his vehicles for himself and a few pals at off-off Broadway Sheridan Square. Irma Vep, which dates from 1984, is the most frequently performed of his risky confections because in it two actors, by running at a coronary-inducing pace, can possibly approximate what Ludlam used to deliver.
Irma Vep comes with sort of a plot, which you can follow, if you pay attention. The scene is the spooky Mandacrest Estate on a desolate moor, home of Lord Edgar Hillcrest (John DeSilvestri), who is still grieving the death of his first wife, none other than Irma Vep herself. We do not see her, but a gnomic portrait of her hangs on the wall. The scowling housemaid, Jane Twisden (DeSilvestri again) thinks rather ill of Lord Edgar’s replacement wife, Lady Enid Hillcrest (Christopher Scheer), and she likes to trade snide gossip with a limping swineherd, Nicodemus Underwood (Scheer again). Having lost his left leg, Nicodemus struggles along with a stiff, wooden replacement, still shod in a black shoe. That artificial limb has a way of taking on a life of its own, springing up when least expected or flying over the heads of the unwary.
Jane and Nicodemus tell us that the first Lady Hillcrest was killed by a werewolf, as was the Lord’s only son. There is no assurance that the werewolf might not still be lurking nearby.
In a flashback we learn of Lord Edgar’s grave-robbing expedition to Egypt. There he deals with an oily, morally ambiguous guide, Alcazar (Scheer), and is led to a sensuous creature, Pev Amri (Scheer), who might indeed be an ancient mummy somehow still breathing and vamping.
Ludlam subtitled Irma Vep to be “a Penny Dreadful,” after the Victorian genre of sensational and horror stories popular with working-class boys. Sweeney Todd, the murderous barber of Fleet Street, originated in the pages of the dreadfuls. Just as the barber with the lethal razor lives on through later, classier manifestations, so too many of the elements in them—reliable turn-ons for readers—survive in later vehicles of more esteem, including novels and movies, such as Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, memorably filmed by Alfred Hitchcock upon his arrival in America (1940). Not only is the mansion in Rebecca named Manderley, but the sour-faced housekeeper (Judith Anderson in the movie) is unmistakably a model for Jane Twisden in the early scenes here.
Ludlam does not stop there. Ridiculous theater is not brainless theater, and Irma Vep compares in cultural allusions, high and low, with T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land. Some are easy: The repeated line (daring us to catch it) “Irma hath murdered sleep” comes from “Glamis hath murdered sleep” in Macbeth. The playwright is not showing off, exactly, and most of these are going to fly over our heads. There will be no Cliff’s Notes to the play. There are also references to The Wolf Man, The Mummy’s Curse, Edgar Allan Poe, Henryk Ibsen, and slivers of Shakespearean verse that might be Hamlet or Titus Andronicus.
Elsewhere Ludlam’s dialogue is not always Irma Vep’s strongest asset. Many of the gags rely on puns, such as the comparison of virginity with a balloon. Somehow many of the worst groaners turn up in the mouths of characters played by Christopher Scheer, who has a way of rescuing the situation by taking on a look as if he were covering up for audible flatulence.
More effective are Ludlam’s scripted improvs that look like pop postmodernist violations of form, like having Scheer in drag shout, “Well, any man who dresses up as a woman can’t be all bad.” Or, with Scheer again, having Lady Enid begging to see Nicodemus and not comprehending why he won’t appear.
For all its verbal charm, Irma Vep is primarily a physical comedy calling for breathless velocity and a certain amount of repetition. Nicodemus’ wooden leg gets steady work throughout. The costume changes get faster as the actor exits at stage right, pulls off the dress designed for easy removal by costume designer Jimmy Johansmeyer, talks from behind the door, and then reappears second later at stage left wearing trousers.
It’s hard work, but unfortunately it often looks like it. There’s a heavy ponderousness hanging over all this silliness, and it’s hard to know where it comes from. Director Bert Bernardi, fondly remembered for last summer’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Great American Trailer Park Musical, has richly demonstrated his effervescent light touch, but not this time. Perhaps it is his insistence that characters speak in heavy regional or class-ridden British accents, which dull the edge of sharper lines. An exception is the Egyptian scene in the second act, the funniest part of this show, while it has been lesser in other productions.
Actors John DeSilvestri and Christopher Scheer, sane, perfectly timed fellows, win our admiration and our applause. But they need more of that antic disposition to make us laugh.
Cortland Repertory has had a fabulous summer. It can afford to end with an A minus.
This production runs through Saturday, Sept. 8. See Times Table for information.