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STAGE REVIEW

No rest for these merry gentlemen

'Mystery' actors fill stage with Gothic gags

'The Mystery of Irma Vep' John Kuntz (left) and Neil A. Casey play all the roles in the Lyric Stage production of Charles Ludlam's ''The Mystery of Irma Vep.'' (Mark. S. howard)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / December 3, 2008
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Tired of traditional holiday fare, from "The Nutcracker" to "A Christmas Carol"? Tired, even, of the neotraditional anti-holiday fare, from "The Santaland Diaries" to, oh, staying home with a DVD of "Bad Santa"? Then you'll find yourself in good company at the Lyric Stage, where producing artistic director Spiro Veloudos has solved the December programming dilemma with a little counterintuitive counterprogramming of his own: "The Mystery of Irma Vep."

Charles Ludlam's high-camp Gothic pastiche has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, or any other end-of-year holiday that might serve as a theatrical inspiration. On the other hand, it's so relentlessly silly, so generous in its distribution of physical goofiness and literate gags, that it can leave you in a positively, if nondenominationally, festive mood. Merry mayhem, everyone!

Of course, vampires and werewolves and living mummies may not be everyone's idea of a good time; I'd certainly leave the smaller children at home. But anyone who's old enough to savor the fine line between spooky and spoofy will certainly appreciate the fast-paced sendup of horror movies, Victorian melodrama, and Gothic romance that is "The Mystery of Irma Vep."

The plot, which is not really the point, draws heavily on Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca," with dollops of Lon Chaney Jr.'s "Mummy" movies, "Jane Eyre," and Edgar Allan Poe thrown in for good measure. The real story here is the way the whole thing is performed by just two actors; one plays the frightened new bride of a brooding widower, the limping and mysterious manservant, and an Egyptian guide (oh, and we mustn't forget the mummy), while the other takes on the aforesaid widower, the malevolent housekeeper, and a character ominously billed only as "An Intruder."

Veloudos has tapped two actors who've already proved their strength at this kind of shape-shifting - in fact, Neil A. Casey is practically getting a vacation here, because in last year's "This Wonderful Life" he played all the parts, not just half of them. Not to worry, though; he fully earns his pay, with hairpin turns from billowy, bosomy Lady Enid to wooden-legged Nicodemus and back again. Meanwhile, John Kuntz makes equally adept changes from Lord Edgar to his housekeeper - and, creepily, the pasty-white makeup and black lipstick work equally well for both.

Kuntz's performance is more stylized, more mannered and deliberate, than Casey's enthusiastic romping, and the contrast sometimes feels too extreme. But it also keeps the energy level high, and that's essential in a show that's really not about very much at all and yet still goes on for two hours. Veloudos, too, keeps things cooking with a sharp sense of comic timing and an expert use of the Lyric's assorted exits to send the characters popping up where you least expect them.

Adding to the fun is Brynna Bloomfield's gently exaggerated Gothic library of a set, which hilariously transforms into an Egyptian tomb for Act 2: A large panel drops down, a sarcophagus is wheeled on, and a completely unnecessary title is projected: "Egypt." For the final note of excess, Kuntz's Lord Edgar appears and solemnly intones: "Egypt. Just as I'd imagined it."

Lighting designer Karen Perlow underscores the humorous horror with plenty of flickering candles and gloomy sconces, and Gail Astrid Buckley outdoes herself with Casey's rustling gowns, a beaded sheath for the glamorous mummy, and a wonderfully absurd satin vestment that Kuntz dons to bring the mummy back to life. Dewey Dellay, meanwhile, supplies a couple of B movies' worth of wolf howls, thunderstorms, and ominous bits of music.

God bless them, every one.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP Play by Charles Ludlam

Directed by: Spiro Veloudos. Set, Brynna Bloomfield.

Costumes, Gail Astrid Buckley. Lights, Karen Perlow. Music and sound, Dewey Dellay.

At: Lyric Stage Company, through Dec. 21. Tickets, $25-$50, 617-585-5678,

www.lyricstage.com

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