Never mind its little quotes from plays by Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe and Henrik Ibsen, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is all for fun.
It’s also a virtual invitation to directors and actors to become master shtik-makers. With a good sense of where a production is headed, you can do almost anything hammy to “Irma Vep” and still enhance the script.
It’s a go-to piece for laughs – or in the burlesque sense of the word, laffs – and also for comedic tour-de-force. At Hedgerow Theatre Company, where the 1984 who-done-it by the late Charles Ludlam has just opened, the versatile Carl Nathaniel Smith and the expressive, rubber-faced Joel Angelo Guerrero are the two actors playing every role in what Ludlam calls “a penny dreadful” in the play’s subtitle.
The only way to ruin “Irma Vep” would be to underplay the show. (I’ve never seen any production that found the way to do that.) Jared Reed, who cut his teeth at Curio Theatre in West Philadelphia, is now Hedgerow’s artistic director (his mom, Penelope Reed, becomes producing director), and he stages “Irma Vep” to move rapidly, the way it should, and to play out as if melodrama were something new to behold.
The effect is an evening that’s always amusing even when it’s not being downright funny – Reed’s taken a piece as light as a snowflake and with the ample stage presences of his two talented actors, made a snowball.
I’ve seen many productions, but can still barely explain the convoluted plot. Irma Vep was the revered (by some) lady of a manor house but she died, as did her son before her, because an animal stalked and killed her. Possibly. Her husband, Lord Edgar, has remarried and his new wife feels uncomfortable in the manor, where the maidservant continues to adore even the memory of Irma. There’s a bizarre keeper of the farm’s pigs, and a middle scene – the funniest in this production – that moves the plot to a crypt in Egypt, and, oh, don’t ask, plenty more.
But mainly there are Guerrero and Smith in instant and often funny changes of clothes and characters, squeezing the juice from the play’s silliness and adding their own little mixers to make evermore potent concoctions of the male and female characters they both play. And here, I offer a round of applause for the unseen performers in the production – the costume changers, who work all evening behind Chris Kleckner’s manor-room set that doubles as the resting place of an Egyptian mummy. The costume changers probably need to be as calm to get their nimble work done off-stage as Guerrero and Smith need to be frenetic to do theirs under the lights. It all works.
“The Mystery of Irma Vep” runs through April 6 at Hedgerow Theatre, 146 West Rose Valley Rd. in Rose Valley, just outside Media. 610-565-4211 or hedgerowtheatre.org.