The conceit of The Mystery of Irma Vep is also its main selling point: two performers do the work of at least six, exiting the stage as one character and emerging moments later as another. At face value, the Tipping Point Theatre production directed by James R. Kuhl is a cavalcade of wild and often otherworldly scenarios engineered for maximum far-reaching parody and meta jokes. The drawback of playwright Charles Ludlam’s script is that it doesn’t aspire to anything deeper — the purpose of this sprinting two-act comedy seems to be sleight of hand for its own sake; yet without anything to mask, the effect is of an extended parlor trick, however amusing or adept.
The preeminent draw of this production is the duo of Brian P. Sage and Kevin Young, who collectively portray all half-dozen or so characters. With all the boisterousness of a door-slamming farce, the pair evokes the feel of a busy household amid a circus of quick changes — it’s telling that the run crew (Caitlyn Macuga, Natividad Salgado, and Katie Terpstra) is larger than the cast. Consistently at the fore of the production is gentle mockery of the restrictions and conventions of live theater as well as the monster-thriller genre, but Young and Sage double down with extravagant character work and playful give and take. Both have fun in male roles, Sage as the masculine hunter-adventurer and Young as a lecherous stable grunt, but they really shine with inelegant female characterizations — Sage’s housekeeper Jane plots and orchestrates with madly imperious resentment, and Young’s tittering Lady Enid is an encyclopedia of physical tics deployed with a kind of secret precision. Exhausting staging works best in a cavalcade of little flourishes outside the text, both self-referential and blindingly oblivious.
The story is egregiously jumbled, with elements wedged in to serve the comedy and just as quickly jostled past and forgotten. Taking inspiration from the overlapping themes of several mysterious-first-wife novels and Hitchcock films that I can never keep straight, the framework finds the lord and lady newlyweds of Mandacrest Estate living in the shadow of three-years-dead Lady Irma Vep, as well as at the mercy of myriad things that go bump in the night. Somebody may or may not be a werewolf, ditto a vampire, mummy, etc. Kuhl and company wisely downplay the specifics of the story, preferring to fully indulge in Ludlam’s madding crowd of tropes. Yet at the same time, the absence of a real plot to anchor the performers’ endless morphing accomplishments unfairly tips the scales toward slipshod rather than slick.
True to the production’s sprawling sensibility, the technical elements establish settings and tones, then depart from them whenever the need arises. Bart Bauer’s setting unfolds its secrets one by one, then up and goes low-rent Egyptian for ten minutes essentially on a whim. Ominous flickering and eerie mood in Rita Girardi’s lighting design is balanced out by overblown, high-contrast spooky cues so unsubtle they warrant their own laughter. Properties by Beth C. Duey begin with some nastily realistic artifacts, but later gamely contribute to wildly inventive chase and fight scenes. Colleen Ryan-Peters’s costumes takes the opposite tack, reveling in a trumped-up costumey feel for the female characters in particular, but showing a capacity for genuine unease even amid the jokes. Using a heavy hand with sound effects, designer Julia Garlotte plays up the unreality of this world and keeps things light. Constantly overlapping, shifting tones keep the action churning and the audience uncertain of what to expect next, but the production’s efforts always defer to the humorous side of the equation.
Transformations in plain sight, chase sequences that would make Scooby-Doo proud, even full-stop musical interludes, The Mystery of Irma Vep wants to have it all, and in large part, it does. Winking, over-the-top parody and impressive backstage breakneck precision are marvelous in their own right, and an affable sideshow sensibility prevails. True to the script’s deliberately shallow bent, the show is a clamor of jokes, but at the same time, the broad, diffuse humor lacks the punch of a single throughline that these skilled performances warrant.