Theater Review - Irma Vep puts gothic movies on fast-forward

The Shakespeare Tavern stages an affectionate spoof

The late Charles Ludlam wrote his spoof The Mystery of Irma Vep for a pair of actors, but the Shakespeare Tavern’s production features three stars. In addition to Jeff McKerley and Dolph Amick, who juggle eight roles, Renée Clark provides live piano accompaniment in an ingenious touch that harks back to the silent film era.

??Clark’s puckish live soundtrack dovetails perfectly with Irma Vep’s affectionate pastiche of old movies, particularly the gothic horror films and romances of the 1930s and early ’40s. Their music was full of melodramatic melodies and dramatic stings. Stirring, would-be heroic chords accompany Amick’s every entrance as the dashing but tormented Lord Edgar of Mandacrest. Mandacrest is his spooky English manor house rife with hidden passageways, haunted paintings and other mysteries. Despite being a two-man show, Irma Vep feels more populated and textured thanks to Clark’s music, which makes amusing shout-outs to familiar pop tunes, such as Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” and the Indiana Jones theme music. ??As sinister housekeeper Jane Twisden, Amick wears a maid’s uniform for nearly half the play, yet he manages to serve as the straight man in this particularly comic duo. McKerley exceeds the heights of outrageousness as Lady Enid, Lord Edgar’s anxious new bride, as well as Nicodemus, the one-legged, thick-brogued manservant. In one of the show’s inventive highlights, McKerley pulls off a conversation between Lady Enid and Nicodemus, concealing his face at strategic moments. The opening night audience not only applauded the speed of McKerley’s costume changes, but Lady Enid’s increasingly flamboyant gowns.
Heidi Cline directed George Faughnan and former Atlantan John Gregorio in an epically funny Irma Vep at Dad’s Garage 12 years ago. Returning to Irma Vep, Cline again sets the snappiest possible pace, but perhaps gives the cast more license to romp around than necessary. By the time Irma Vep enters its home stretch, you’re ready for them to wrap up the little bits of suggestive shtick and cut to the chase. Nevertheless, the Tavern’s spaciousness and vaguely Elizabethan atmosphere provide a perfect backdrop for Irma Vep. When Lord Edgar takes a quick trip to Egypt for a spot of tomb-raiding at the beginning of Act Two, the actors climb all over the set. McKerley and Amick live up to the hilarious physical demands the script puts on its cast, even though Clark emerges as the most valuable player.

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