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Randall Theatre's 'Irma Vep' is low brow, high laughs

I should confess to being a sucker for Charles Ludlam's brand of lunacy-inspired theater. And his campy 1984 masterpiece of silliness, "The Mystery of Irma Vep, A Penny Dreadful" which opened Friday night at Medford's Randall Theatre, is quintessential Ludlam.

"Irma" is an intentionally goofy mix of melodrama, a Hammer horror film, Gothic farce, cross-dressing and adaptive clothing, staged as if it were written by Emily Bronte, Daphne du Maurier and a young Alfred Hitchcock after hitting the nitrous oxide. The laugh count is high, the brow is low, and the tongue is firmly in cheek.

It's the 1890s, and Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Vanessa Nowitsky), the famed Egyptologist, has brought his new wife, Lady Enid (Jacob Uhlman) home to stately Mandacrest Estate on the moors of northern England. There, he's haunted by the memory of his first wife, Irma, whose gigantic portrait above the fireplace dominates the manor's drawing room.

The servants, a scruffy groundskeeper and a mouthy maid, are suspicious of the Hillcrests and the mysterious goings-on at Mandacrest. OK, suspicious may be an understatement. After all, there's a werewolf on the loose, and a vampire and a mummy are lurking in the wings. Not to mention various animals, monsters and ghosts.

And the play's deal is this: Two actors, Nowitsky and Uhlman, play all the parts, involving more than 30 costume changes. Some of these are lighting fast, forcing the audience to try to picture the frenetic action taking place backstage.

Lady Enid is cowed by her new position as lady of Mandacrest. The maid, Jane Twisden (Nowitsky), doesn't think she's a worthy successor to Lady Irma. Lord Edgar is disturbed by strange goings-on on the heath (are there any other kinds of goings-on on the heath?). Meanwhile, the grotesque groundskeeper, Nicodemus (Uhlman) has killed a wolf, but it's the wrong wolf.

When Lord Edgar mounts an expedition to Egypt to discover the secret of immortality, he's aided by the dubious Egyptian guide Alcazar (Uhlman), and the two discover a 3,000-year-old mummy (Uhlman) who's brought back to life. And so on.

Timing is everything in broad comedy, and Nowitsky and Uhlman play off each other like they were born to the roles. Nowitsky's small stature and Uhlman's height give the pair a Mutt and Jeff look. Dressed as Lord Edgar, with a little mustache, Nowitsky looks a bit like Charlie Chaplin. With his rubbery facial expressions and thick mat of hair, Uhlman has a bit of a young Mick Jagger thing going.

The script is designed for the actors to ham it up. And Uhllman and Nowitsky make the most of it, chewing up the set with lines like, "Your tongue will dig your grave!"

The puns, both visual and verbal, are groaners. Lord Edgar says of Lady Enid, “She’s changing.”

And there are exchanges like these:

"She's got terrible insomnia."

"Can't remember a thing, eh?"

And:

"This (a doodle of a derriere)is a very primitive hieroglyph."

"It's a little behind."

The creation of the costumes — some three dozen of them — fell to Toni Holley, who outdid herself, and whose purchases for the show must have made Velcro stock shoot up.

Robin Downward, who directed, also designed the faux-English manor set, with a sliding fireplace that reveals a secret passage, a funny sarcophagus and, I believe, at least two busts on the mantle that appeared to be vampires.

The Randall's lights — the lighting was designed for the show by Kelly Latham — seem to have been upgraded just in time for a show with lots of moody changes, and Tim Kelly's sound design is right on the money, with lots of funny, off-stage goings-on told depicted in darkness through sound alone.

Shakespeare it ain't (well, Jane does say of Irma, "She has murdered sleep!"). But it will have you laughing all the way back to your drawing room.

"The Mystery of Irma Vep" plays Thursdays through Sundays through Feb. 7 at the Randall, 10 E. 3rd St., Medford.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Vanessa Nowitsky, left, and Jacob Uhlman hit the funny bone in Randall Theatre's production of 'The Mystery of Irma Vep.' Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell