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'Irma Vep' resounds with sheer silliness

Randall Theatre's production of playwright Charles Ludlam's comedy "The Mystery of Irma Vep" truly has everything.  The three-act play is a sendup of several genres, including Victorian melodrama, farce, penny dreadfuls, Gothic novels and psycho-thriller films. It features Lord Edgar (an Egyptologist), his wife, Lady Enid, a werewolf, a vampire and a mummy, along with improbable situations, plot twists and physical humor. "The Mystery of Irma Vep" was first produced by Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York City's Greenwich Village in 1894. 

"I have always loved the ridiculous," says Randall Artistic Director Robin Downward, who heads the production. "When I was looking at shows for our 2015 season, I wanted to lighten things up. 'Irma Vep' is a comedy similar to Mel Brooks' well-known cult classics ("Young Frankenstein," "The Producers"). The characters are overblown and larger than life, the music and sound not only accent the action but add to the comedic effect. Add all that to more than 30 costume changes made by just two actors and you get a comedy where the description 'over the top' would be tame."

"The Mystery of Irma Vep" opens Friday, Jan. 23, with a reception at 6:30 p.m., followed by the show at 7 p.m. Tickets for the opening night show cost $15, and complimentary hors d'oeuvres and drinks will be served. Other performances will be at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24, and Thursdays through Saturdays, Jan. 29-31 and Feb. 5-7. Matinees are set for 1 p.m. Sundays, Jan. 25, Feb. 1 and Feb. 8. Reserved seating costs $15 and can be purchased online at randalltheatre.com or by calling 541-632-3258. Pay-what-you-want tickets will be available 30 minutes before show times.  

Vanessa Nowitzky and Jacob Uhlman make some 35 costume changes during the two-hour show. With only two actors playing the characters — and ghosts, monsters and animals — the play is a challenge for them as well as the director and the costume designer.

"Working from an old script," Downward says, "we found many notes added by the original production's costume designer. The 1890s were chosen as the period, as long skirts were needed to cover costumes under costumes. Actors wore more than one at a time, making it quicker to step offstage and then reappear as another character in a matter of seconds. The quick changes also can be acquired with wigs and a lot of Velcro.

"Toni Holley had the difficult task of costuming this production," he says. "Not only do the costumes have to be made to look the period, but they must also be modular and removed easily. No small task. Especially Lady Irma's gowns.

"If the ridiculous is losing its appeal over the years, that doesn't mean it still can't be incredibly funny," Downward says. "Ludlam's package of classic metaphorical words and phrases from diverse sources — of both the undead and the lycanthropic — still resounds with its sheer zaniness, and it gives the actors more loaded lines to chew on than they'd find in most Shakespeare, who is, naturally, referenced too.

"Campy may be a great way to describe this production. It layers soap opera with classic Gothic thrillers. There are quotes from 'The Mummy,' 'Gaslight,' 'Jane Eyre' and Henrik Ibsen's 'Ghosts,' along with snippets of Edgar Allen Poe," Downward says.

Vanessa Nowitsky, left, and Jacob Uhlman play all of the characters — and animals, monsters and ghosts — in Randall Theatre's 'The Mystery of Irma Vep.' Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell