Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep is the first show that Balagula Theatre has revived, and after seeing it on opening night, it's easy to see why audiences who saw the 2008 show were clamoring for more.
I also reviewed the show in 2008, so it was particularly interesting for me to see the similarities and differences between the two productions.
The similarities? Ludlam's script obviously hasn't changed. It's as zany and guffaw-inducing as ever. Sometimes I think Ludlam's requirement for the script was to render a coherent plot synopsis impossible. Let's just say there's an atmospheric English estate, a struggling second marriage, a hysterical, occasionally insane actress, vampires, werewolves, Egyptian mummies, and several dozen quick costume and wig changes (this time, executed by backstage dressers Shelly Gallenstein and Will Drane). It's pure theatrical mayhem of the most hilarious variety.
The players are the same too, with Ryan Case and Shayne Brakefield reprising their roles as Lady Enid and Lord Edgar, respectively, plus a host of other characters.
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The players may be the same, but the playing itself is distinctly different: more seasoned, more nuanced, and more nimble. That, along with a more lush set design, by Natasha Williams and Randy Hall, makes the production more of a sophisticated update than a literal, nostalgic reprisal of the original.
Don't get me wrong, Case and Brakefield were hilarious in 2008, but their characterizations were a little more surface and stereotyped, which is exactly what Ludlam's script offers and requires. After all, satirizing grossly overused and under developed dramatic tropes is pretty much the whole point of the play.
However, this time around, Case and Brakefield have dug deeper, played harder. Both are more seasoned, and they have imbued their characters with surprisingly layered traits and interesting choices that make the play even more interesting, and by interesting, I mean deliciously weird.
It's not just their richly developed characters but also their impact on one another that make the play so enjoyable. The duo aren't just acting — saying their lines and portraying their characters — they are truly playing, as in having a ton of fun, which translates to the audience. While I've only seen one performance of the play, I strongly got the sense that the play is different almost every night and that anything might happen.
On opening night, a few technical hiccups added some surprise moments of improv to the duo's playing. Case brilliantly ad libbed a line when his werewolf character Nicodemus broke a curtain rod and Brakefield nobly struggled to hold back his own laughs when Lady Enid's dress ripped.
Only in a show like Irma Vep can these surprises be milked for even more laughs, humorously highlighting the special "you had to be there" connection between audience and players that makes live theater so appealing. It's the kind of thing that might freeze a lesser experienced actor in terror, but for Case and Brakefield it was only a new aspect of the playing, adding an element of skillful improv that further emphasized the duo's quick-witted chemistry.
The play may be the thing, but in the case of this production of Irma Vep, it's all about the players.