Thirty years ago, Charles Ludlam wrote a comic masterpiece. Here, the Berkshire Theatre Group celebrates it with a ridiculously hysterical production on the Fitzgerald Main Stage in Stockbridge. The Mystery of Irma Vep is a whirligig Gothic pastiche that aficionados of the genre—from its great, great grandfather Shakespeare through Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde and Daphne du Maurier—will swoon over. Vep balances on Ludlam’s sublime and frequent use of the alienation effect, winking at the silly play of Vep while holding seriously its ridiculousness: It’s like The Importance of Being Earnest with werewolves, mummies, vampires, and the odd mad wife chained in the attic. For those who just want hearty laughs, a good time is guaranteed for all.
The two-hour running time swirls by as quickly as the two-actor cast (Bill Bowers and Tom Hewitt) change costumes for the seven characters they play. Randall Parsons’ scenic design creates the archetypal Gothic Victorian mansion, “Mandacrest”; all that’s missing is the fog. Alan C. Edwards’s lighting design supplies the moonlight-candlelight-Egyptian tomb-gloom-fireplace glow-ominous shadows-gloam on the moors. Wade Laboissonniere’s costume design is the stuff Gothic dreams are made on. As with last summer’s The Cat and the Canary, Berkshire Theatre Group know how to create a spooky ambience on their ancestral home turf.
But all this excellent de-mense is barren without director Aaron Mark’s masterful pacing: moments that whirl like a magician’s fingers, seconds that spread like a spider’s web; the audience’s attention is directed as finely as his actors’ focus is,
And, as with comedic geniuses like Shakespeare and Wilde, Ludlam has created a play even the most ham-fisted dolts would pull laughter from its audience. But to see acting genius at a play suited for their talents is rare. Here Bowers and Hewitt are giving a master class on mask work. The theatrical magic the two protean talents create is bliss to behold. Rolling through housekeeper Jane Twisden—picture Frau Blucher on a crampy day—to Lord Edgar Hillcrest, heir of Mandacrest—imagine if James Whale of Frankenstein fame had directed John Wayne—through two other roles to reveal would spoil some of the fun, Bowers put his considerable talent in creating character through facial expressions to magnificently ridiculous ends. Tom Hewitt matches Bowers personae to personae, his Nicodemus Underwood—imagine Young Frankenstein’s “Eye-gore” on growth hormones and better diction—rifling through to ingénue Lady Enid Hillcrest—picture a better-dressed giant Kardashian filtered through “Real Housewives of Thornfield” (or Bronte’s Jane Eyre tarted up with Kardashian breasts inflated)—with “Alcazar,” seemingly straight from Boris Karloff’s Ardath Bey in The Mummy with a splash of Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca to make it all the more campy, to round out the challenge.
And the challenge they all meet and triumph with is Ludlam’s flair for costume changes, which are done just offstage, with often a surprising entrance to goose the audience’s appreciation. When a costume change has audience members flipping through the program to confirm that truly only two actors are creating all these characters, that’s theatrical magic. And to call these “costume changes” is to slight how fully Bowers and Hewitt flip the switch of their characters. Audiences rolled with laughter and delight, and the applause, well-deserved, was as full of life as Bowers’ and Hewitt’s characters.
So quick and sharp are the characters’ transformations, stage manager Stephen Horton and what I imagine must be a horde of Oompa Loompa stage hands deserve their own curtain call. This The Mystery of Irma Vep should not be missed.