WHEN A WEREWOLF and a vampire meet up in ancient Egypt, it can only be either a terrible new show on the CW network or a brilliant classical farce.
Fortunately for theatregoers this month, it’s the latter:
Smart laughs and sarcophagi abound when Armstrong State University’s Dept. of Art, Music & Theatre (AMT) presents The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful Sept. 25-28 in the Jenkins Hall Theater.
Headily referred to as an “ironic deconstruction of the horror genre with high-camp celebration,” Charles Ludlam’s Obie award-winning play features monsters, melodrama and mayhem as it skillfully lampoons several genres with the same skewer.
The tittering Victorian propriety of Wuthering Heights gets its due, and Alfred Hitchcock’s gothic romance Rebecca receives a lance in the side. And of course, there are several winks-and-nods to the pulpy “penny dreadful novels” of the 19th century.
Add in a whirlwind of wardrobe changes and a bit of Three Stooges’ physicality and it’s a formula for hilarity.
“The genius is that it ties in all of these literary and cultural references with slapstick humor,” says director Travis Hornsby.
“There’s a lot of potential for laughs.”
First produced way off Broadway in 1984 by the Greenwich Village-based Ridiculous Theatre Company, The Mystery of Irma Vep begins at the grand Mandacrest estate with Lord Edgar and his new wife, Enid, as they contemplate the mysterious demise of Edgar’s first spouse, Irma Vep (word nerds will recognize the name as an anagram for “vampire.”
Caretakers Jane and Nicodemus deepen the mystery with their suspicious attachment to the former lady of the house, and appearances by the aforementioned werewolf and mummy drive the plot from Victorian England into the paranormal with all of the speed and chaos of a bat out of hell.
But here’s the rub: The cast of eight characters is played entirely by two people. Not only that, but the play’s licensing agreement stipulates that those two people must be of the same gender, ensuring that campy cross-dressing is part of the comedic frenzy. AMT students Jonathan Handley and Tristan Carlson artfully scramble as the two leads, while Justin Davis serves as an understudy and occasional foil.
The lightning-quick dialogue and multiple personality shifts presents a tremendous directorial challenge.
“It’s very ambitious,” laughs Hornsby. “We have almost fifty costume changes over the course of the show.”
The recent AMT graduate is no stranger to theatrical farces. He directed the Masquers’ production of the romantic imbroglio Cactus Flower in 2012, and he specifically chose The Mystery of Irma Vep as his first post-grad endeavor. While it was the most produced play in the U.S. in 1991 and enjoys status as the longest-running play ever produced in Brazil, this is the first time Irma Vep has ever been staged in Savannah.
“It was important to me to debut it here,” he says. “The absurd and downright silly nature of farce is entertaining and strangely captivating.”
Though the cast may be small, Hornsby assures the talent of Armstrong’s AMT students and faculty has been utilized for Irma Vep’s bevy of props, sound cues and special effects.
“This is definitely a full department adventure.”