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Campy cultural fodder has its way with Diversionary's 'The Mystery of Irma Vep'

by Cassiopeia Guthrie, December 19, 2022

In the program notes for Irma Vep, dramaturg Jesse Marchese draws attention to the art of literary collage that Charles Ludlam employs. "Ludlam reveals a camp way of looking at cultural material that mainstream society has taken for granted... Gothic Romance, Victorian Melodrama, Hollywood Horror... "high" and "low" works of literature." These elements and their presentation in what co-directors Matt M. Morrow and Allison Spratt Pearce term "Parmage" - that is, half parody and half homage - have audience members cackling in their seats through The Mystery of Irma Vep, playing now through Dec. 24 at Diversionary Theatre.

As the production unfolds, we meet Lord and Lady Hillcrest, a couple living on the moors in a stuffy, Haunted Mansion-esque estate called Mandacrest. An Egyptologist and avid hunter, Lord Hillcrest wrestles with finalizing his farewells to deceased first wife Irma Vep (whose visage appears both on the wall and indelibly stamped in the fond memories of the staff). The new Mrs. Hillcrest, a sweet former actress, hopes to win the hearts of the servants and her husband alike. As the storyline progresses, mysteries and horrors begin to reveal themselves, Mandacrest reveals its secrets, and two hours worth of tropes, irony, over-the-top melodrama, and supernatural elements from werewolves to the undead are unveiled.

It's a wild ride, from the very moment the actors appear/disappear/reappear onstage, trip through the audience, or slyly offer what Marchese describes as Ludlam's "coded 'wink and a nod' toward queer-identifying audience members" to the first and second twists...

Two actors appear onstage in a manor. One is on his knees, and the other stands looking spooked.
Luke Harvey Jacobs and Bryan Banville in The Mystery of Irma Vep. Photo by Matthew Herman.

The production includes seven characters, played to great amusement by just two talented actors, Bryan Banville (who appears as buttoned up housekeeper Jane Twisden, gentleman of the keep Lord Edgar Hillcrest and others) and Luke Harvey Jacobs (appearing as peg-legged servant Nicodemus Underwood, second wife Lady Enid Hillcrest, and others). Both performers are delightfully funny, fully committed to their various personages, and ready to employ their full arsenal of physical and situational comedic techniques. They know when to flirt with or razz the audience, when to take their beats... and how to lean into them with each and every improv skill in the book for maximum effect.

Inventive scenic, lighting, and sound designs also transform the space quite effectively; design team members (Matthew Herman, Annelise Salazar, and Evan Eason) have crafted a creepy palette upon which the storyline and a significant number of props (Alyssa Kane) are mixed. I must note that the array of costumes were not only well suited to the characters, but impressively equipped to facilitate what were possibly the quickest quick changes I have ever seen. Each garment (Brooke Nicole Kesler) and wig (Peter Herman) seemed more elaborate than the next, yet they swapped out seamlessly over and over again. This is a testament to the planning and purpose that not only went into preparing for the show to open, but also to the hard work onstage and backstage that must go into making it run smoothly each night.

While there's only a few performances remaining, I found the production to be a welcome diversion from the oft saccharine holiday season. Farce, horror, and audience participation lovers, this is your show.

The Mystery of Irma Vep runs through Dec. 24 at Diversionary Theatre.

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