The Mystery of Irma Vep

By Charles Ludlam
Directed by Jayme Koszyn
Lincoln Street, NEWTON, MA (617)332-1646 to November 1

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

It's coming on for Halloween, and all around us are vampires, werewolves, mummies, and Freddy Krugers. Cross-dressing is OK, this once -- people aren't supposed to make assumptions about your gender identity based on what you wear to a Halloween party. For kids, playing scary "dress up" is a very basic kind of theatre, a way of dealing with fear by controling the script so that only as much fear as can be handled happens: fear punctuated with giggles of denial and relief. Now, Charles Ludlam's camp monsterpiece, "The Mystery of Irma Vep" -- Irma Vep being an anagram of Vampire--- has been making the rounds of respectable suburban theatre companies the last few seasons. Although I'd like to connect the script's popularity with our seasonal psychodrama, productions like the one currently running at Newton's New Rep make it difficult. What's on the New Rep stage is a PBS cartoon, with all the shadows scrubbed away. There's no Faustian undertow of forbidden knowledge, no tabooed desires to tempt the hero or heroine to cross the boundaries -- of class, of nation, of species, of gender -- of death itself.

Then what is the point of it? Just theatrical tricks and treats? Well, those are very nice, and indeed director Jayme Koszyn and her New Rep actors supply treats in abundance, once they are warmed up and into disguises that suit them -- or is it suits that disguise them? By late in the second act the sight gags are coming a mile a minute, the actors hurtling down hairpin turns of plot with grand insouciance. But still -- it's Miss Manner's idea of kid stuff. More than two hours is much more than enough.

The first scene is all exposition, as Jane the housekeeper (Fred Berman) and the wooden-legged swineherd Nicodemis (Mark Enright) discuss the Master and the new Missus, Lady Enid, a retired actress. Berman, in a totally implausible wig, mammoth eyebrows, an 'aitch-dropping bass-baritone, and a five o'clock shadow, plays Jane so improbably that it can only be a deliberate acting choice. I assume that Berman and director Koszyns have some subtle artistic agenda that escaped me, rather than that there is a malign gynophobic spirit at work causing the actor to avoid being even minimally credible in a female role. But still, I've seen better drag on a high school football team.

Enright's Lady Enid, while also a bass-baritone, is a more delicate creation, made up of equal parts timorous kitten and tigress, primps and swoops. By act two, when Enid was sharing her triple-takes with the audience, the character had grown on me to the point that I was willing to be in on all her little jokes if it would help the poor beleaguered lady to a happy ending. When Berman comes on as Lord Edgar, his banty rooster of a gothic hero isn't commanding or mysterious enough to play out the implications of the Romance plot where the heroine is forced to consider the possibility that the man she has married is really part of a deep-woven conspiracy to drive her to insanity or suicide. But Berman is terrific at the comedy based on caste stereotypes. In Lord Edgar's parodic pomposities, Jane's deep-voiced squawp opens out into the melifluously rolling periods of an aristocrat enamored with the sound of his own manly voice. He could be playing Shakespeare.

The second act moves to Egypt, where designer Martin Bridge provides a luscious quick change tomb set, glowing in ochre and crimson and lapis lazuli. The set color, and the pleasing palette of Viola Mackenthun's instant costuming, does seem somewhat at odds with the black-and -white memories of the grade B films being parodied-- but I suppose that's only for spectators old enough to have seen them when they were first released. When the mummy movies show up on late night TV, like the Rep's "Irma Vep" they may be colorized.

The most satisfying scenes of the evening are the ones in the second act between Berman's Lord Edgar and Enright's Alcazar, the creepy Egyptian guide who is really a rival German archeologist in disguise. Here the satire skirts the sexual and plunges into the political, summoning up a swarm of images of Eastern perfidy and Western imperialism as fez and pith helmet negotiate the terms of their grave-robbing enterprise. The funniest, and most technically accomplished, scene is a split-second tussle near the end between two characters -- both played by Enright--- one of whom changes into a werewolf during the course of it. It has to be seen to be believed! The backstage magicians who make this kind of thing possible deserve the applause they get when they emerge from behind the scenes at curtain call. But the question remains: when the motive for a performance is to demonstrate professionalism and abstract skill rather than to express the working-out of a passion, is "Irma Vep" really worth doing, worth seeing?