Posted by: strugglesome | November 6, 2011

American Gothic: Act II Playhouse’s The Mystery of Irma Vep

Modernity has really screwed men fashion-wise. While Elizabethan courtiers were permitted to swan about in pink satin britches, embroidered waistcoats and satin cravats, the men of the 21st century have to content themselves with somberly hued dress shirts, khakis, the occasional polo, and a fedora, if they are feeling particularly fancy or taking a trip to Williamsburg. Though the concept of a metrosexual has given today’s man a chance to bring pomade and primping back into his daily routine, it’s a far cry from the face powders and beaded codpieces that used to be de riguer.  Of course, there is always the theater, that wild and wonderful world where men can dress up as fancy as they please with no hope of shame or reproach (or financial compensation…) and spin all of their fantasies, merry as the day is long. And while the United Kingdom may think it has cornered the market on men dressing up as women, well, they are just as deluded about that as they are about the proper pronunciation of schedule. Because the men in this country love to dress up. They just don’t always get the opportunity.

But thank goodness for dearly departed (far too soon) playwrights like Charles Ludlam, who gave us the insanely silly striking satire of all things melodramatic and Romantic (please note the capital R), The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful, currently playing at Act II Playhouse. Because if he did anything, he gave men the chance to dress up like women. And men. And other women. Over and over again. Within a two-hour period. Of course, that’s the beauty of a quick-change show, every actor plays at least 3 characters if not more, and we pretend to believe it, because it’s just that much fun. So when we see Dito Van Reigersberg shift between surely groundskeeper and delicate young bride, well, we think nothing of it, in fact, we adore it, despite the stubble. Because this kind of work is not about believing in the transformation from actor to one specific character, it’s about the virtuoso of one actor managing to represent each of the many caricatures and types being thrown into the face of the audience over the course of a delightfully overdone plot.

And, luckily, in the particular production, the two actors in question, the aforementioned Van Reigersberg and Luigi Sottile. could not be better fits for this material. So what is the material, exactly? Well, it’s deliciously complicated, like an Agatha Christie novel on methamphetamines. Freely borrowing from Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Dracula and any werewolf legend you might care to reference, not to mention any number of Mummy allusions, Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Sottile) has brought his delicate young wife, the new Lady Hillcrest, Enid (van Reigersberg) back to his country manor near Hampstead Heath. Of course,this was also the country seat of Lord Hillcrest’s former bride, Lady Irma Vep (dun dun duhhhh), as the very so proper lady’s maid Jane (Sottile) could not be more eager to point out both to her new mistress and to the surly groundskeeper Nicodemus Underwood (van Reigersberg). But is Lady Irma really dead? What is the true secret of Hillcrest manor? It will take a trip through the pyramids of Egypt and into the past to unravel this grab-bag of mysteries and wonders. But never fear, true love eventually triumphs, and our two young lovers make it all work out. It’s a beautiful then when two cross-dressing gentleman find either other, don’t you think?

Staged by director Harriet Power in Act II Playhouse’s intimate space out in Ambler, Pennsylvania, this production is a lovely example of wonderfully self-aware theater. Dirk Durossette’s delightfully artificial set transforms itself, laboriously (that poor overworked run crew) from demure English sitting room to Egyptian tomb and back again, complete with painted on books and a chilling photo of the former Lady Hillcrest. James Leitner’s lighting gives an appropriately chilling air whenever it needs to, and James Sugg’s sound design hits every single creepy and cooky musical cliché possible, in the best sense. But the true star of this lovely design scheme are Aliza Sickora Kleckner’s fantastic costumes. Tafettas, brocades, miles of lace (van Reigersberg is very tall) and an extremely charming pale blue safari seat (a look Sotille pulls off with style), each outfit is not only perfectly in keeping with the tone of this work, but slid on and off the actors with dexterity and speed (thanks to Lauren Myers and Kristen Watts, the hardworking dressers). Amid a cloud of design more notable for its absurdity then it’s subtlety, Kleckner’s costumes not only fit right in, but they lead the way into sheer hilarity. There is nothing like seeing a tall man with a five o’clock shadow donning a rustling dress and a ridiculous wig. Getting to see two tall men do that, well, it’s a rare treat.

In all actuality, there is nothing intrinsically funny about Charles Ludlam’s original script. If one was to do it without a trace of irony, employing 9 actors instead of two, treating the script seriously and with great reverence, it would be the most boring play possible.  It is only because this highly melodramatic and overwrought text is performed by two men who opening mock the story and glory in its irreverent insanity. Is it meaningful? Not really. Is it resonant? Not particularly. But is it enjoyable to the extreme? Absolutely. And is it a truly fantastic duo whose timing is impeccable and whose ability to play organically and well with each other delightful to watch?  It certainly is. With Sottile’s versatility and bravado, and van Reigersbergs mugging and fluttering eyelashes, the pair are painfully entertaining, and worth the trek. After all, when was the last time you saw two men competing for best dressed woman?

Act II Playhouse’s The Mystery of Irma Vep is playing from now until the 20th of November. Tickets are available here.

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