Saturday, January 16, 2016

'The Mystery of Irma Vep' moves IRT's virtuosity into the foreground, where it rubs shoulders with sheer comic gusto

There aren't many shows a producer would promote the way Indiana Repertory Theatre has "The Mystery of Irma Vep." On my Facebook feed, a sponsored item carries a picture of Marcus  Truschinski and Rob Johansen in one of several "Vep" guises and invites the public to savor their "utterly asinine performance."

Talk about disarming criticism! It's tough to top that as a description of what took place on IRT's Upperstage opening night Friday. But of course an asinine performance brought off with such energy and commitment, and with every aspect of IRT's technical acumen synchronized with the actors, is just what Charles Ludlam's "penny dreadful" needs.

Directed by James Still, Truschinski and Johansen bend every effort toward realizing the rich Gothic absurdity of Ludlam's imagination. Never have winds across the moors of northern England blown with such mind-clearing gusts of shrieking nonsense as they do around the Mandacrest estate.

The plot is difficult to summarize. An amateur Egyptologist and novice hunter, Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Truschinski) is enmeshed in his own spooky back story. It's set out for the audience in flagrant bits and pieces, like a generous but haphazard buffet. Ceaseless laughter becomes an aid to digestion.

In a calm moment at Mandacrest, Jane offers Lady Enid tea, but little sympathy
Edgar's new wife, Lady Enid (Johansen) stands in the shadow of his previous spouse, the title character. A vain ex-actress out of her element, Enid is resented by the longtime domestic servant Jane Twisden (Truschinski), whose fellow factotum Nicodemus Underwood (Johansen) clumps about on a wooden leg, spouting dense wisdom in a Yorkshire accent as thick as gorse and harebell.

The cast is so deft with quick changes, and the script so rife with knowing allusions to the precarious balance of character absence and presence, that anyone in the audience can be forgiven for losing the narrative thread. I've extended such forgiveness to myself, at least.

Stupefying events in succession tend to obliterate what has preceded them. I would be reduced to stammering if asked to give a full account of any given scene, though images of just about all of them are whirling around today in my private phantasmagoria. They are accompanied by Lindsay Jones' stunning sound design, keyed to resonant pipe-organ music.

Johansen and Truschinski: Protagonists agonistes.
Mistaken identity has been a staple of stage comedy from ancient times. Ludlam builds upon the misprision basic to the genre to make a spicy stew out of the ingredients of personhood. Identity is fluid and ever subject to change in the kaleidoscope of extraordinary life situations. Johansen's Nicodemus shifts into a werewolf practically before our eyes. Truschinski's Jane, when she becomes especially bossy, adopts a chesty, mannish tone of voice. The show's answer to everything confining is to "shake it off," in Swiftian (Taylor, not Jonathan) terms.

Such fluidity seems to be an outgrowth of gay culture within historical bounds only recently breachable. Sexual ambiguity and looseness of gender roles is central  to the tradition. It emerges out of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" (vivid portrayals of Lady Bracknell have come from gay actors, including the late Brian Bedford). It attained provocative mordancy in the plays of Joe Orton. It's evident in all-male productions of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" that Edward Albee has at times tried to quash.

Still has played up some suggestiveness of this sort, which is deeply embedded in the way Ludlam mocks supernaturally charged romantic movies, and the cast brings it off piquantly. One can only hope most such business went over the heads of  kids in the opening-night audience. Despite the all-ages "wow" factors in this production,"The Mystery of Irma Vep" is not for children.

Besides arousing gales of guffaws, IRT's achievement here is to bring front and center the expertness of its production team. Its technical resources are unmatched by any company for miles around. The unity of effect that "The Mystery of Irma Vep" made Friday night represents a triumph of professionalism over material that deliberately pulls dramatic cohesiveness every which way. It's all in the service of what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the height of the ridiculous.

I doubt either of the athletic, virtuoso players ever asked in rehearsal: "What's my motivation here?"  It's not that kind of play. I'm supposing the answer would have been something like: "To bring off this bit as spectacularly as possible and get smoothly to the next outrageous bit. Rinse and repeat."

That's a lot to ask, of course, but everybody concerned  with "The Mystery of Irma Vep" delivers on all counts.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]