The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful

Drag Farce Launches Berkshire Theatre Group’s Season

By: - Jun 30, 2014

The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful
By Charles Ludlam
Directed by Aaron Mark
Associate Director, Michael Growler; Scenic design, Randall Parsons; Costumes, Wade Laboissonniere; Lighting, Alan C Edwards; Sound, Brendan F. Doyle; Composer, Our Lady J; Stage manager, Stephen Horton
Cast: Bill Bowers (Jane Twisden, Lord Edgar Hillcrest, An Intruder), Tom Hewitt (Nicodemus Underwood, Lady Enid Hillcrest, Alcazar), Irma Vep (?).
The Fitzpatrick Main Stage
Berkshire Theatre Group
83 East Main Street, Stockbridge, Ma.
June 24- July 19

If over the top, high camp, drag farce is your cup of tea than you will find Charles Ludlam’s familiar The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful at Berkshire Theatre Group just hilarious.

The production is performed to perfection by a two hander of Broadway veterans Bill Bowers and Tom Hewitt in dizzying fast changes of male and female costumes and characters.

Part of the fun is that the very large, tall, and robustly masculine Tom Hewitt is a truly penny dreadful drag queen as the simpering newlywed Lady Enid Hillcrest and then show stoppingly absurd as a born again, as in dead for three millennia, Egyptian princess.

We first meet Bill Bowers as the disgruntled housekeeper Jane Twisden. Initially she was the personal maid of the late mistress of the house, Irma Vep, who may or may not have died under mysterious circumstances. Shades of Jayne Eyre she may be bonkers and locked away in a secret dungeon concealed behind a bookcase in the drawing room.

In fact, Jane, who resents and despises the new Lady Enid, may be in love with her employer and alter ego Lord Edgar Hillcrest. While Bowers plays Jane fairly straight, he has light in the loafers, swishy, balletic moves in his male role. His remarkable comic timing, including pregnant pauses milked for laughs, brought the house down.

Not just is Irma Vep perhaps dead and gone it also appears that her young son was mangled in the throat by a once tame wolf gone wild, or possibly at the hands of a werewolf.

Who may be the raunchy, stinky, hunch backed, uncouth swine herder, Nicodemus Underwood (Hewitt).

It is, of course, a dark and windy night on the edge of the heath. Or is it Heathcliff? Ludlam plays fast and loose with literary resources in a patched together plot with little or no substance or redeeming intellectual density.

The Gothic ambiance of this dark comedy was richly enhanced by the sets of Randall Parsons. There are two primary settings, the drawing room of the cold, dark and damp Mandacrest on the Moors and an ersatz Egyptian tomb. We have flashes of lightning out on the Moors by Alan D. Edwards and crackling thunder by Brendan F. Doyle.

Of course the quick change costumes designed by Wade Laboissonniere are essential to the success of this farce. He has Lady Enid looking perfectly dreadful.

By the way a Penny Dreadful is so named for a type of 19th century British fiction featuring lurid serial stories published weekly costing a penny.

In this genre of theatre some like it light and the more ridiculous the better. In productions of the play the actors often appear to be enjoying themselves more than the audience. It must be great fun to pull out all the stops.

At best I endure farce and find it amusing. It is the favorite genre of some of my critic friends. One of whom can’t abide sitting through Shakespeare.

In some theatrical circles Ludlam is hailed as a genius.

Charles Ludlam was an actor and playwright who wrote, produced and starred in more than two dozen plays, starting in 1968 and continuing up until his death from AIDS in 1987 at age 44. While Irma Vep is the most produced of his plays he is also known for Bluebeard (1970) and Camille (1973). Five years ago, he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.

When it comes to prolific gay playwrights and filmmakers who died young, frankly, I prefer the German Rainer Werner Fassbinder (31 May 1945 – 10 June 1982). Remarkably, in just fifteen years he completed 40 feature length films; two television film series; three short films; four video productions; 24 stage plays, four radio plays; and 36 acting roles in his own and others’ films. He also worked as an actor (film and theater), author, cameraman, composer, designer, editor, producer and theater manager.

I have managed to see most of his films and one TV series but his plays are not produced in America. Now that’s true genius. Compared to which Ludlam was talented.

Berkshire Theatre Group might have launched its season with something more substantial and challenging. This production would have been perfectly fine mid or post season and in the smaller Unicorn Theatre.