The Mystery of Irma Vep has the audience ‘howling’ with laughter at Cal Shakes

THE MYSTERY of IRMA VEP: Satirical Mystery-Farce  by Charles Ludlum. California Shakespeare Company (CalShakes), Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. (510) 548-9666. www.calshakes.org.  August 12-September 6, 2015.

The Mystery of Irma Vep has the audience ‘howling’ with laughter at Cal Shakes Rating: ★★★★☆

For the past 15 years Jonathan Moscone has guided the California Shakespeare Company to becoming a premiere theatrical group in the San Francisco Bay Area. Under his direction productions of Shakespeare alternated with modern plays and the classics by such greats as Shaw, Beckett including the memorable two parts The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby the 8½ hour-long adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel by David Edgar. For his swan song as director of CalShakes he has inexplicably elected to mount The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful that has made the local rounds starting in 1997.

The play is the product of the late “off-the-wall and out-of-the-closet actor, playwright, director, and producer” Charles Ludlam and his partner Everett Quinton. When first produced by Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1984 it won a Drama Desk Award and an Obie Award for Ensemble Performance. Ludlam and his partner usually played all the roles (male and female). A 2011 local incarnation was the brilliant Masquer’s production in Point Richmond that was extremely outrageous with the 20 year partners Peter Budinger and DC Scarpelli (they are married) playing all the roles that tested their endurance with quick changes of costumes  and demeanor.

The Masquer’s staging was a tight, taunt 90 minutes without intermission. Moscone and Cal Shakes have added shtick and directorial conceits to the play extending the running time to two hours and 10 minutes with an intermission. It is a big beautifully staged sprawling production with the caveat that it is more about the actor(s) and director than the hilarious script.

“That actor” is Bay Area icon Danny Scheie who performs admirably in drag and dominates the stage with his classic drag queen demeanor deservedly garnering many of the laughs that abound. One might change the ancient axiom of W. C. Fields “never share the stage with children or animals” to “never share the stage with Danny Scheie.” That being said, Liam Vincent holds his own playing opposite Scheie and director Moscone has given Vincent solo stage actions that earn deserved accolades from his first appearance as maid Jane Wisden and later with an ad lib about a recalcitrant wig.

All the pieces of what makes a production memorable are here. The play opens on a gorgeous creepy, charming English mansion interior set, complete with fireplace and French doors (set by Douglas Schmidt) with a wild storm brewing (lighting by Alex Nichols & sound by Cliff Caruthers) with maid Jane Twisden (Liam Vincent) engaging Nicodemus Underwood (Danny Scheie) the stableman in conversation. The out and out laughs begin and continue until the final tableau that received a standing ovation.

Alfred Hitchcock could not write a better script in this mystery/satire/farce genre that throws in references to every horror film imaginable with The Mummy’s Curse receiving special attention.

Oh yes, the story line. Lord Edgar Hillcrest has brought his second wife to live at Hillcrest Estate where his former wife Irma Vep and son may have been tragically murdered. As one would expect with an estate located in the moors, strange growling creatures(s) roam emitting blood curdling howls. Poor Lady Enid and the others have to put up with a ghost, a werewolf and a vampire. A mummy and an Egyptian princess make their entrance in a beautiful sarcophagus that adds a further touch of class to the proceedings. Some of the added shtick includes a scene with dueling dulcimers (think dueling banjos for the movie Deliverance) and a solo song for Vincent.

Scheie and Vincent are absolutely superb with perfect timing in their body actions, facial expressions and vocal intonations as the switch from male to female to animalistic characters. With a few exceptions (“Some men look good in drag.”) they play their roles “straight” and seem to be having as much or more fun than the audience.

(L to R) Danny Scheie as Lady Enid Hillcrest and Liam Vincent as Lord Edgar Hillcrest in California Shakespeare Theater’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, directed by Jonathan Moscone; photo by Kevin Berne.

Jonathon Moscone adds some spot-on directorial touches to embellish the non-stop action. Special honors to costume designer Katherine Roth and the unlisted off-stage dresser(s) who handle 35 different costume changes.

Never fear, the mystery of Irma Vep is solved and Lord and Lady Hillcrest probably will live happily forever as they walk hand and hand through the French doors into the miasma of machine produced fog.

Recommendation: Should see.

CAST: (In Order of Appearance):Jane Twisden, Liam Vincent; Nicodemus Underwood, Danny Scheie; Lady Enid Hillcrest, Danny Scheie; Lord Edgar Hillcrest, Liam Vincent; Alcazar, Danny Scheie; Ensemble, Liam Vincent and Danny Scheie.

ARTISTIC STAFF: Scenic Designer, Douglas Schmidt; Costume Designer, Katherine Roth; Lighting Designer, Alex Nichols; Sound Designer, Cliff Caruthers; Text/dialect Coach, Dominique Lozano; Resident Fight Director, Dave Maier; Stage Manager, Laxmi Kumaran; Assistant Director, Thomas Chapman; Assistant Lighting Designer, Hamilton Guillen; Resident Dramaturg, Philippa Kelly.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Courtesy of www.theatreweorldinternetmagazine.com.

(L to R) Danny Scheie as Lady Enid Hillcrest and Liam Vincent as Lord Edgar Hillcrest in California Shakespeare Theater’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, directed by Jonathan Moscone; photo by Kevin Berne.