Arlington — Playwright Charles Ludlam created the ideal period parody, a tribute, some believe, to theater which he loved so passionately. The Mystery of Irma Vep is a penny dreadful, which means it is styled as cheap serial fiction that has Gothic elements including characters from the grotesque (vampires, werewolves, etc.). This was a highly popular literary form during the 19th century, which was appropriated into 20th century television programming through shows such as Dark Shadows and Tales from the Darkside. Theatre Arlington’s production, directed by David Wilson-Brown, is synchronized and wickedly funny.
The play is satirical and filled with literary allusions. Ludlam shamelessly draws lines and references from well-known literary works such as Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” (“rapping, as if someone gently tapping”) and from Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (“Each man kills the thing he loves.”) Ludlam winks at Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” and du Maurier’s “Rebecca” through set and scenic design, and quotes from Shakespeare and James Joyce.
The action opens in the library drawing room of Mandacrest, which is the Hillcrest estate near Hampstead Heath. It is the home of Egyptologist Lord Edgar Hillcrest and his new wife, Lady Enid. They are tended by house servant Jane Twisden and groundsman Nicodemus Underwood. Lord Edgar is still bound to his first wife, Irma Vep, who died mysteriously along with his son. She is honored through a lighted portrait that hangs above the mantle over the fireplace. As we enter the story, Lord Edgar is hunting a wolf that has been terrorizing his sheep. While he is out, an odd and curious creature assaults Lady Enid. In an effort to locate it, Lord Edgar travels to Egypt and returns with unusual cargo.
All roles are played by two male actors. The master of the house becomes the house servant, the lady of the house becomes the groundsman, and that is just the beginning of the switcheroos which happen with blinking speed, giving new energy to the phrase ‘quick changes’. There are around 35 costume changes. This is a heavily stylized piece that is dependent upon actors with a strong sense of comic timing, and an understanding of camp. Those assignments have been given to B.J. Cleveland (Nicodemis/Lady Enid/Alcazar/Pev) and Todd Hart (Jane/Lord Edgar/An Intruder).
Cleveland and Hart are ideally suited for these roles. This is the type of work that in less experienced hands could easily be misread and played too pointedly particularly with the lines appropriated from classical literature. Cleveland and Hart massage, inflect, and play, but they do not inflate the exaggeration already in the script. It is a treat to watch them.
Partnering with Cleveland and Hart in this production is the technical team. Ric Leal’s costumes are true to the period and appear to be manageable, which might be the most important factor. Credit must be given to the dressers, Clark Jones and Reed Lewis. Bill Eickenloff’s sound design matches the Gothic tenor of the story and incorporates the requisite eerie howls and creaks. The scenic design by Anthony Curtis is filled with literary references but it avoids being too busy. Properties designer Cathy Pritchett and lighting designer Kyle Harris managed to take the large array of items and tasks in their respective areas and keep them small and supportive.
The Mystery of Irma Vep demands a lot from its cast and production team including crew. It is not an easy play. But no worries—the team at Theatre Arlington has everything under control.