At 2111 Sansom Street on the second floor of the Old Lutheran Church of the Communion, (home of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival) Brat Productions is presenting Charles Ludlam's, "The Mystery of Irma Vep" until July 8th. The play premiered in New York in 1984 and received a special Drama Desk Award and two Obie Awards for Mr. Ludlam and his co-star Everett Quinton. This production, however, features one woman, Madi Distefano, and one man, Daniel Ruth each playing four roles apiece, both male and female. The result is hysterical and quite ridiculous as this spoof on the Golden Age of Hollywood Horror should be. For "camp" is like the
". . . little girl who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
And when she was good she was very, very good
And when she was bad she was horrid"
Rest assured that this version of Charles Ludlam's send up of horror movies is very, very good. Of course, Mr. Ludlam's play has something for everyone. There's a werewolf, a vampire, a beautiful mistress, her handsome master, a deformed servant and a suspicious maid. There's also a mummy who comes to life and a ghost who will not die.
Lady Enid Hillcrest has just married Lord Edgar Hillcrest and is trying to adjust to her new surroundings, living at the Mandacrest Estate on the moors. She has been preceded by Edgar's first wife, Irma Vep, who, along with her dog, died mysteriously. Jane Twisden, the maid, resents her new mistress and wonders why she sleeps all day and walks about her bedchamber all night. Nicodemus Underwood, the deformed servant, appears to lust after Jane, who won't give him the time of day. Eventually we learn that there is a wolf on the grounds -- a wolf who was thought to be dead, but is back roaming the moors. There is also an intruder who attacks Lady Enid. We later discover that Lady Enid has been bitten by a vampire. Act II takes us to Egypt where Lord Edgar has journeyed to the tomb of Pev Amri. There, in a sarcophagus, lies the mummy of an ancient queen. Egged on by Alcazar, his guide, Edgar brings the dead queen back to life. In Act III, back at Mandacrest, we discover who the werewolf is. And suddenly from the other side of a rotating bookcase, Irma Vep appears to Lady Enid. Is Irma Vep still alive? Well, you'll have to see the play for yourself to find out.
The set by Anthony Hostetter is perfect. Dark paneled walls, period furniture, French doors that open out onto the garden and a hideously frightening portrait of Lady Enid Hillcrest looming over the mantelpiece. In Act II we are transported to Egypt where wooden panels painted with Hieroglyphics have been wheeled in. In the center sits a gilded sarcophagus complete with a bandaged mummy (who is searching for her daddy) inside.
As the first lugubrious chords of heavy organ music started to envelop me, I was already laughing before the first actor came onstage. Yes, from the downbeat we were already over the top. We are first greeted by Ms. Distefano as Jane Twisden, Lady Enid's maid. There is nothing too strange about this, as we know that Ms. Distefano is a woman playing a woman. But when Lady Enid Hillcrest takes stage, that famous line from "The Producers" comes to mind: "Max, he's wearing a dress!" Yes, and the dresses by Costume Designer, Millie Hiibel are quite lovely. And those dresses go on and off at an alarming pace! I think that this play must hold the record for the number of costume changes. There are times when you literally don't know how they do it. And that of course is when it's really fun. Ms. Hiibel has given Mr. Ruth's Lady Enid quite a "rack" as it were. And one of the funniest moments occurred when after one of the many quick changes, Lady Enid's chest wasn't quite in the right place. Perhaps they should keep that in.
Both Ms. Distefano and Mr. Ruth are wonderful character actors who take on different vocal qualities and physical attributes for each role. The limping, leering Nicodemus which Mr. Ruth creates is a classic study of Dr. Frankenstein's assistant. And Ms. Distefano's very convincing Lord Edgar is a Monty Pythonish plum-in-the-mouth, stiff-upper-lipped chap.
The play moves at a wicked pace due to the facile and clever direction of Greg Gephart. All in all it's great summertime fare.
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