Monday, October 15, 2012
Theater review: The Mystery of Irma Vep at WaterTower Theatre
Laugh with all eight characters played by just two actors.
ADDISON I admit I was duped by The Mystery of Irma Vep (A Penny Dreadful) in the best possible way. It wasn’t until I picked up the program, during the interval, that I realized only two actors (Regan Adair and Bryan T. Donovan) were playing eight characters, male and female. It’s not like Tuna, Texas where no attempt is made to conceal this. Irma Vep features full costume changes, and while eventually we catch on, the experience is completely different. I guess you could say the keynote of Irma Vep is camp, in various incarnations. “Penny Dreadful” is a British book genre that in America, we might refer to as “pulp fiction” or “purple prose.” Irma Vep revels in its own excess, the voracious and ostentatious consumption of scenery, the outlandish content, the dedication the performers bring to their whimsical portrayals of women. You haven’t lived till you’ve seen Donovan’s restored Egyptian Princess dance the hoochie with bodacious tatas.
Perhaps at the heart of camp performance are three principals: things are not what they appear to be, the delights of extremism, and the hilarity of spoofing feminine propriety. All of which Irma Vep exhibits gleefully. As far as content, it’s chock of gothic horror cliches: vampirism, reincarnation, werewolves, familiars, romantic obsession, mummies. But it doesn’t matter that we’ve seen it all before, because clearly, Charles Ludlam (the author) Terry Martin (director) Adair and Donovan and crew are here to play. And they gamely invite us to play along. Once we understand there’s only two of them, their ingenuity at finding reasons to exit becomes part of our shared enjoyment. Normally I don’t care for “winking at the audience,” but here it works perfectly.
In addition to that, the layers of allusions (Shakespeare, du Maurier, Wilde) and pop cultural ghoulishness just seem to pile up. Ironically, the longer the show continues, the less seriously you can take it, and the more it tickles. One of the hazards of feature length satire can be relying too heavily on the audience’s familiarity with secondary material. Where Ludlam succeeds with Irma Vep is the decision to forge a narrative that operates independently of external references. Simply put: The plot is so preposterous, you giggle, whether or not you get all the “in-jokes.” Irma Vep pokes equal fun at both plebian and lofty culture.
Beyond the sheer logistics of leaving the stage to change, Donovan and Adair deserve accolades for shifting gears so efficiently, limberly, and completely. It must take grueling rehearsal, steadfast cooperation, and flawless focus to navigate Ludlam’s script and still manage to be funny. So much of comedic performance turns on attitude. If your head isn’t in the right place, if you’re anticipating the next step, cue, etc., if you’re distracted, the text won’t pop, and you’re in big trouble. Adair and Donovan clear these formidable hurdles with panache, poking us in the ribs, while all we need do is kick back and enjoy the breakneck ride.
Pegasus News Content partner - Christopher Soden, Dallas GLBT Arts Examiner
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