Charles Ludlam was a flamboyant iconoclast and founder of New York’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, ruling the city’s avant garde theater scene in the 1970s and ’80s. His plays spoofed all aspects of culture, from Elizabethan theatrics to classic Hollywood movies. He usually wrote a role for himself – usually female – and won acclaim playing Camille and Maria Callas.
The Mystery of Irma Vep proved one of his most popular and enduring plays, and with good reason. It’s one of his most straightforward works, relatively speaking. Mixing Hitchcock’s Rebecca with Universal horror classics from the ’30s and ’40s, it’s fast and funny, naughty without being prurient. At one point it was the most-produced play in the United States.
The Falcon Theatre production, under the direction of Jenny Sullivan, perfectly captures Ludlam’s anarchic spirit. Matthew Floyd Miller plays Jane Twisden, the Miss Danvers-style housekeeper who oversees Mandacrest Estate, as well as the master of the house, Lord Edgar Hillcrest. Jamie Torcellini plays Lady Enid, Edgar’s second wife, as well as Nicodemus, a groundskeeper with a wooden leg. Since Lady Enid is “from the stage,” Jane considers her a commoner not worthy of Edgar, who is still in mourning for his late first wife and young son. Add a werewolf, a vampire, the possible ghost of the late wife, and a briefly-resurrected mummy and you’ve got potential mayhem, but Ludlam keeps it all cranking with a comprehensible story that doesn’t skimp on the laughs.
Miller and Torcellini are clearly having a blast with their roles, and they pass their enthusiasm along to the audience. As Lady Enid, Torcellini is reminiscent of a miniaturized version of John Waters muse Divine, complete with the facial expressions (and I mean that as the highest compliment). Miller’s imperious Jane seems to float around the room. Both are gifted physical comedians – after Enid is attacked by a vampire, she re-enacts the assault for Edgar in pantomime, and it’s so perfectly performed you can barely catch your breath from laughing so hard. And their transitions from character to character are rapid-fire and seamless.
There are funny self-referential moments. At one point, exasperated by an intentionally malfunctioning prop, Edgar exclaims, “Who built this set?” And the groaners work, too. When the late Lady Irma’s portrait is replaced with one of Enid, she remarks, “That can’t be me. That’s a virgin,” to which Jane dryly replies, “Well, it was painted a lo-o-o-o-ng time ago.”
David Beaudry’s sound design and Thomas S. Giamario’s lighting match the mayhem note-for-note. Giamario’s set is also an ingenious funhouse, complete with fog-shrouded garden, candlelit drawing room, and hidden passage. Alex Jaeger’s exaggerated period costumes also serve to punctuate the comedy. Sullivan’s direction is seamless – I detected not a single flubbed line or missed cue in the complicated production.
The Mystery of Irma Vep plays Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 4:00 p.m. through November 17 at the Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank, CA 91505. Reservations can be made online or by calling (818) 955-8101.
Photo: ‘Lord Edgar’ (Matthew Floyd Miller) and ‘Lady Enid’ (Jamie Torcellini) in ‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’ at the Falcon Theatre. Photo by Chelsea Sutton.