The Jungle Theater’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep” does so many things so quickly, you might need to see it twice. From flying wolves to frenetic costume changes to furious wordplay, this gender- and genre-bending piece of work passes in such a blur that every time you laugh, you run the risk of missing something.
Written by Charles Ludlam, founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is most notable for featuring only two actors playing six roles, with all the lightning fast costume changes that entails.
The play aims its satire squarely at Victorian melodrama and gothic fiction and film, with farcical nods to Shakespeare, Ibsen and Poe among others, and a full complement of sight gags, double entendres and theatrical sleight-of-hand. The Jungle originally produced this raucous work in 2010, directed by Joel Sass, with Bradley Greenwald and Steven Epp. Sass and Greenwald are back this time around, with Stephen Cartmell replacing Epp.
It’s a dark and stormy night on the Mandacrest estate as the play opens, and longtime faithful retainers Nicodemus (Greenwald) and Jane (Cartmell) bring the audience up to speed on the history of their employer Lord Edgar (Cartmell) and his second wife Lady Enid (Greenwald). All the while, a portrait of deceased first wife Irma Vep glowers down on them from above the mantelpiece. Vampires, werewolves and mummies abound as plot twists take the characters from England’s heaths to Egypt and back again.
This is as perfectly realized a production as one could hope for, from Sass’s precise direction and his beautifully detailed set to John Novak’s inventive prop design and Sean Healey’s lush sound design. The multiple costume quick changes, managed by a five-person running crew, are simply dazzling in their speed and inventiveness.
Greenwald is in his element here, with characterizations that display clever timing, larger-than-life exaggeration and full-blown physicality. His Nicodemus’ transformation into a werewolf is a piece of stage business that’s matched in hilarity only by the scene in which, as Enid, he manages to carry himself offstage.
Stephen Cartmell acquits himself equally well, belying his status as the newcomer to this production. His Lord Edgar is a stolid English gentleman, equal parts haughtiness, naiveté and blustering conviviality, while his Jane is a wonderfully funny evocation of a sinister servant, complete with pregnant pauses and knowing looks taken to a comic extreme.
“Irma Vep” isn’t just a very clever play, it’s a demanding one. This production meets those demands both technically and artistically, creating a work that’s simply breathtaking in its audacity.
Lisa Brock writes about theater.