Imagine if comedian Mel Brooks and Twilight author Stephenie Meyer collaborated on a play set in eerie Hampstead Heath, England, in the early 1900s. This only begins to describe the ridiculous hilarity of The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful.
Actually, the show was conceived by the American actor-director-playwright Charles Ludlam, who founded the aptly named Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967. Ludlum was a pioneer in the avant-garde genre “theater of the ridiculous,” which rejected realism onstage and embraced the art of camp. Ludlam’s most successful play, The Mystery of Irma Vep, sends up decades-spanning pop culture and (then) long-held ideals about what a play should be.
The storytellers at the Indiana Repertory Theatre embrace Irma Vep’s nonsensical elements, producing one of the IRT’s most uproarious and unexpectedly deviant shows. Playwright-in-residence James Still directs longtime acclaimed theater-staple Rob Johansen and core company member at American Players Theatre in Wisconsin Marcus Truschinski (seen at the IRT in last season’s The Hound of the Baskervilles). The two play off each other flawlessly. At one point on opening night, an improvisation by Truschinski had Johansen fighting not to laugh. The duo makes melodramatic farce a new artform.
The plot (I use the term loosely) revolves around newlyweds Lord Edgar and Lady Enid Hillcrest, their servants, and the former lady of the house, Irma Vep. Lady Enid lives under the shadow (quite literally) of Irma, while the moors are the hunting grounds of what could be a werewolf. Both Lord and Lady are looking for a way to escape the dead Irma (to exorcise her and to revive her, respectively), a search that leads them into the catacombs of Egypt.
Truschinski and Johansen play all seven characters, which not only requires the intense ability of an actor to switch personalities within seconds but also includes a score of rapid costume changes, many in drag (as dictated by Ludlam in the script). (Hat off to Guy Clark, who designed costumes that made the switches possible.) Truschinski and Johansen never falter in their on- (and off-) stage bedlam. Johansen even gets to scoot his bottom across the set in a way that dog owners will recognize all too well.
Everyone involved with this production did nothing short of spectacular work. Do not miss this show: It is worth every penny and then some of its ticket price.