Invariably, whenever we do multiple shows on a weekend, they theme together in some way. Sometimes the connection is subtle. Sometimes, it is as obvious as fog on a moor. In this case, the weekend’s theme is clear: it is a weekend for fast-paced comedic murder mysteries. Last night, it was Charles Ludlam‘s The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful at Actors Co-op (FB); this afternoon it is Ken Ludwig‘s Baskerville at Canyon Theatre Guild (FB). Although I didn’t know this at the time we booked the shows (we booked them because, for one, we’re subscribers; for the other, a friend is directing), both involve a small number of actors playing a large number of characters, both are farces, and both take place out in the moors of Scotland.
In the case of Irma Vep, we have two actors (of the same sex) playing 3-4 characters each. That the actors be of the same sex is apparently stated in the show contract. In 1991, it was the most produced play in the United States. It is claimed to be terrifying, shocking, and hilarious; but, alas, I’m not the type that gets terrified or laughs out loud that easily. There were others in the audience reacting that way, so I’ll take their word for it.
Here’s the synopsis of the show as described by Wikipedia:
Mandacrest Estate is the home of Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist, and Lady Enid. Lady Enid is Lord Edgar’s second wife, though he has yet to recover entirely from the passing of his first wife, Irma Vep. The house staff, a maid named Jane Twisden and a swineherd named Nicodemus Underwood, have their own opinions of Lady Enid.
Enid is attacked by a vampire, and Edgar seeks answers in an Egyptian tomb, briefly resurrecting the mummy of an Egyptian princess. Returning home with the sarcophagus, Edgar prepares to hunt down the werewolf he blames for the death of his son and first wife. Meanwhile, Enid discovers Irma locked away, supposedly to coax out the location of precious jewels from her. Wresting the keys to Irma’s cell from Jane, Enid frees Irma only to discover the prisoner is, in fact, Jane herself, actually a vampire, and the killer of Irma as well as her and Edgar’s son. Nicodemus, now a werewolf, kills Jane, only to be shot dead by Edgar.
In the end, Enid prevents Edgar from writing about his experiences in Egypt, revealing she was the princess herself, the whole thing an elaborate sham by her father to discredit Edgar. The two reconcile.
Looking at the show with a normal playgoer’s hat on: It is pretty funny (as I said: it’s hard to make me laugh out loud, but the show achieved it a few times). The show skewers many of the murder mystery conventions (both stage, screen, and poetic), is an avenue for some very funny performances. It plays well with the tropes, even going into the melodramatic where that was appropriate. There are a few double-entendres that the astute will catch, and it even gets self-referential. I particularly enjoyed the playing with Edgar Allen Poe near the end. As such, it was quite enjoyable.
But with my “woke” hat on, it bothered me a little — at least enough to get me thinking. In this era of Ru-Paul’s Drag Race, should we be finding men dressing up as women as a source of humor? This bothered me until my wife asked the question: How much of the humor of this show derived from the cross-dressing aspect? A few self-referential jokes, perhaps. That then segued my thinking into the question: How would this show be differently perceived if, instead of two men playing all the roles, we had two women cross-dressing as men at points? I think some of the humor might be toned down a notch, or it might even come across differently. It would certainly be interesting to see (especially alternating with the male cast version).
Another “woke” aspect that bothered me was the traditional portrayal of Egyptian relic hunters, which in many ways was straight out of the Indiana Jones caricature. While I understand why that was done in the context of the play, and how it fits with the period-view in the story, it made me wonder why we still need to depend on such tropes in plays produced today.
Being “woke” is such a pain sometimes. Just look at my reaction to Miss Saigon for another example. But if I react to this, others will. The best answer is to provide some context in the program from a dramaturg: why were these tropes chosen, and why are they integral to the play and the story. This is an increasing concern: look at how the Asian tropes have impinged on the recent musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, and even then those tropes were significantly changed from the movie portrayal.
But back in 1984 when this was first produced, we didn’t think of such things. And, as I noted in the start, with my 1984-glasses on this is a funny play, with strong performances, great comic timing, and an excellent skewering of a genre that oft times deserves it.
Under the direction of Carla Cackowski (FB), the pace remains crisp and the comic performances strong. She has worked with her acting team to bring the most out of the performances, and to emphasize the playfulness of the characters when appropriate, and the seriousness when appropriate.
We meet John Allee (FB)’s character Jane Twisden, the housekeeper first. Allee primarily alternates between Jane and Lord Edgar, and captures the different characterizations of both well. We even get to hear Allee singing at one point.
Playing off Allee is Isaac Wade (⭐FB, FB)†, who in many ways get to be more of the comic foil as Nicodemus, Lady Enid, Alcazar, and Pev Amri. He gets the more humorous cross-dressing aspects, and in general is the absurdist against the more straight-faced characters of Allee. He does a great job with this. He also has points where he gets to be multiple characters on-stage at the same time.
[†: whose personal website, alas, prompts you to upgrade to the latest version of Flash, even if you already have it. Flash websites are so 2000s, and with my cybersecurity SME hat on, I urge him to move away from using Flash]
Uncredited as performers, but on-stage occasionally and credited in the curtain call, are the two assistant stage managers, Mia Cotton (FB) and Ember Evertt (FB). On-stage, they appear in various masks to appear to be the other characters. Off-stage, they get the additional hard task of helping with all the quick costume changes.
Turning to the production side: The scenic design of Jessa Orr and Greg McGoon (⭐FB, FB) ‘s set design works extremely well. The primary design was an old Scottish manor, with some very realistic set painting, and a portrait on the wall that did things I didn’t think it could do. This was transformed effectively in the second act into an effective Egyptian tomb through some simple devices. Overall, it worked very well. It was supported by the effective sound effects of David B. Marling (FB), which were well timed, appropriate, and significantly helped to establish the mood and tone. Also establishing tone and time was Martha Carter (FB)’s lighting design. Supporting this all (and shown in the photo-strip to the right) were Vicki Conrad (FB)’s effective quick-change costumes, and her hair and makeup designs. Lori Berg (FB)’s properties completed the picture; particularly effective was the wolf-design. Other production credits: Jack Wallace Dialect Coach; Eric M. White (FB) Stage Manager; Mia Cotton (FB) and Ember Evertt (FB) Assistant Stage Managers; Nora Feldman Publicist; Selah Victor (FB) Production Manager; Carly Lopez (FB) Producer.
The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful continues at Actors Co-op (FB) through November 10, 2019. Tickets are available through the Actors Co-Op website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. Overall, it is a funny show, well executed with great performances. In the genre of farces where minimal characters play a maximal number of characters, it works quite well but also raises some interesting questions.
I like to say that I’m a professional audience, and that’s why I like theatre. In my real life, I’m a cybersecurity subject matter expert — an engineer. I don’t have the creativity in me to inhabit other characters, and in general, the writing I do is limited to non-fiction — government documents and policies, highway pages, and reviews like these. I don’t have the ability to take an idea and turn it into characters and stories that might be compelling to an audience. But as I just noted, I’m also a long time cybersecurity professional, and attending years of the Hollywood Fringe Festival has convinced me that the medium of the stage could be used to teach about cybersecurity in a way that audiences could learn, without being overwhelmed with technology. The notion I have is to take some broad cybersecurity themes and concepts and translate them into stories that could teach in a compelling way. But I don’t have the expertise to build a story out of the idea. If this is something that might interest you, please let me know. I don’t have funds for a commission or anything like that, but it might be something we could turn into a property beneficial for all.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Sunday afternoon brings Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville at Canyon Theatre Guild. The next weekend brings Anastasia – The Musical at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend brings us back to the Kavli for The Music Man at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), followed by In Trousers at the Lounge Theatre from Knot Free Productions. October concludes with Mandy Gonzalez at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) and the MoTAS Poker Tournament.
Looking to November, it starts with A Miracle on 34th Street – The Radio Play at Actors Co-op (FB), followed by Big Daddy the Band of 1959 at McCabes (FB) in Santa Monica.. The second weekend brings Summer at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB). November concludes with Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks.
December is relatively open right now, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. The first weekend (before ACSAC) may bring an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB). I do have a hold for December 17 for Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild. I also have a hold for January 4 for What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, but I’m waiting for the presale to start to confirm that date. I’m already booking well into 2020.
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!