Review: ‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’ at California Shakespeare Theater (***1/2)

by Charles Kruger
Rating: ***1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Danny Scheie and Liam Vincent in
Danny Scheie and Liam Vincent in “The Mystery of Irma Vep.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

For his final directing project at California Shakespeare Festival (before he begins his new position at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), Jonathan Moscone has chosen to dive into the Theatre of the Ridiculous. Ronald Tavel, an early practioner and founder of “The Ridiculous Theatre Company” famously described the genre thusly: “We have passed beyond the absurd; our position is absolutely preposterous.”

The term “preposterous” barely does justice to Charles Ludlam’s bizarre and hysterical comedy, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” which sends up vampire movies, wolfman movies, gothic romances, realism, absurdism, and any other “ism” you can think of.

Liam Vincent and Danny Scheie square off in
Liam Vincent and Danny Scheie square off in “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”

On an overblown lush and realistic set (if you lived in a horror movie, that is), with over-the-top operatic costumes, under dramatic lighting that would be well suited for a wax museum, Danny Scheie and Liam Vincent have a blast using 30+ gender bending costume changes between them, including mummies, ghosts, werewolves, and vampires. With a range of voices and accents which resemble nothing in the real world, they cavort through this caper like refugees from a circus conceived by a collaboration between Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Rue Paul, and Milton Berle, with some help from Mel Brooks and Carol Burnett.

Danny Scheie and Liam Vincent...Again...
Danny Scheie and Liam Vincent…Again…

These two distinguished Shakespeareans are not shy about letting it all hang out, and the results are laugh provoking, to say the least. Jonthan Moscone has directed them with a sure hand, polishing each moment with care.

If anything, the performance on opening night was almost too perfect. This kind of ridiculousness requires a kind of knowing smirk by the actors, a loose, improvisational quality where anything might happen, that was not quite in evidence. One of the funniest moments occurred when a wig nearly fell off a head, but this kind of much needed casual flaw was mostly avoided. One hopes (and expects) that as the run progresses, the actors will relax more, and the show will be even funnier.

In any case, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is a fine parting shot for Mr. Moscone, who demonstrates, as if we had any doubt, that he will be missed.

It’s great fun!

“The Mystery of Irma Vep” plays at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda through September 6, 2015. For further information, click here.

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“The Mystery of Irma Vep” by Charles Ludlam, produced by CalShakes. Director: Jonathan Moscone. Assistant Director: Thomas Chapman. Scenic Designer: Douglas Schmidt. Costume Designer: Katherine Roth. Lighting Designer: Cliff Caruthers. Text/Dialect Coach: Domenique Lozano. Fight Director: Dave Maier.

Cast

Jane Twisden: Liam Vincent. Nicodems Underwood: Danny Scheie. Lady Enid Hillcrest: Danny Scheie. Lord Edgar Hillcrest: Liam Vincent. Alcazar: Danny Scheie. Ensemble: Liam Vincent and Danny Scheie.

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