By Dale King
The Mystery of Irma Vep is a high-octane, mystery/thriller/satire that’s getting plenty of guffaws from summer audiences at Island City Stage in Wilton Manors.
The show is peculiar in its uniqueness. Playwright Charles Ludlam, a pillar of the LGBTQ+ community for his contributions to literature and stage shows during his AIDS-shortened career as an actor and author, tasks a two-man cast with making 35 costume changes and portraying eight characters in a rapid-fire fright-fest.
The two-hour, 15-minute show includes a single intermission.
An energetic tale, Irma Vep lampoons various theatrical, literary and film genres while drawing werewolves, ghosts, mummies and things-that-go-bump onto a stage that’s deftly adorned as a Victorian manse. This campy melodrama scares up hints of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein while clawing the veneer off a raft of film and stage classics.
Add to that the fact that the title is the name of a character in the 1915 French movie serial, Les Vampires, and is also an anagram for the word “vampire” – a fact not lost on the two multi-talented, multi-tasking starring players.
It’s unlikely the Vep saga would succeed as it does without the talented actors who don costumes and switch genders at blazing speed – Larry Buzzeo and Bruce Linser, performers well-known and much appreciated for their contributions to theater throughout South Florida. Both players sport stage credentials that could fill a lengthy Egyptian scroll – a prop that just happens to pop up in this varied narrative that wanders from England to Egypt and back.
Irma Vep opens eerily at Mandacrest Estate, a venue festooned with weapons decorating the walls, stereotypical center-stage French doors leading to dark, forbidding moors in the distance and a coffee table book about Egyptology taking up considerable space in a sturdy wooden bookcase. The stage is overpowered by a large painting of a staid, matronly woman – austere, but not beautiful.
The set, crafted handily by master carpenter and lighting designer Ardean Landhuis, is the home of Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist, and Lady Enid, his second wife. Edgar has yet to recover completely from the death of his first wife, Ms. Vep – the woman in the portrait whose stern demeanor continues to haunt her former home.
Buzzeo and Linser buzz about like dervishes changing costumes and genders to become Lord Edgar, Lady Enid, Nicodemus, the wanderer; Jane, the housemaid; an intruder; Pev Amri, Alcazar and a secretive, indistinguishable character whose identity, once revealed, flips the action on its head.
Irma Vep is played in loony, campy style, with the performers nodding, winking, smirking and otherwise attracting the audience’s attention. The action is great, absurd and exaggerated as Linser becomes Jane, in a long black dressing gown, or Edgar, in spiffy hunting gear. He is out for game – big game, he says – searching for a wolf named Victor who is said to have killed his son, also named Victor.
Meanwhile, Buzzeo morphs from Enid in full-color dressing gown and piled-high red hair to Nicodemus, the tattered, trampy troll who apparently calls the moors home.
The show is filled with lots of verbal quips and sight gags. At one point, the two players pick up dulcimers and begin to play “Dueling Banjos” on the ancient instruments.
Often, when Linser mentions something the audience doesn’t understand, he yells, “Google it.”
“I wish I could list all the literary and cinematic references in this play,” said Island City’s Artistic Director Andy Rogow, who helms this antic production. “It’s a treasure trove for any theater lover.”
He said Ludlam, the pioneering playwright whose death in 1987 earned page 1 placement in the New York Times for its first-ever mention of AIDS as a cause of death, once described the play as “an ironic deconstruction of the horror genre with a high-camp celebration of it.”
The show requires many sound cues, props and special effects along with quick costume changes. In order to ensure cross-dressing – the core of the show’s comedy – licenses to perform the play include a stipulation that the actors must be of the same sex. Linser and Buzzeo obviously have the stamina for fast costume change-outs. At one point, Buzzeo, likely on purpose, portrays both Enid and Nicodemus standing in the center doorway, with one costume on his left side and the other on his right.
Certainly, the actors on stage deserve a big hand (there’s probably a joke here) for going above and beyond to deliver the goods. The characters these performers create are expertly crafted, with differences highlighted not only by vibrant costumes (courtesy of Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma), but also by body language, accent and energy level.
Ditto for the stage crew that aided the speedy theatrical performance: W. Emil White, Bonnie DuBeck, David Noonan, Roy Abbott, Denise Proffitt and Michael Madigan.
The Mystery of Irma Vep plays through July 10 at Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors. For tickets, call 954-928-9800 or visit islandcitystage.org.