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The Mystery of Irma Vep — Hedgerow Theatre

Irma Vep - alternativeCarl Nathaniel Smith and Joel Guerrero are havIng a ball playing the various characters Charles Ludlam created for “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”

The great news is their rampant fun and intoxicating merriment spread to the audience who are grandly entertained by Smith, Guerrero, and Ludlam’s broad comic shenanigans in Jared Reed’s rollicking production of “Irma Vep” for the Hedgerow Theatre, which celebrates the fictional style of Ludlam’s work by subtitling it “a penny dreadful.”

The agile Smith snarls and growls his lines as a crusty caretaker of a British country estate, near the moors, don’t you know, a place so beset with wolves, one chomped off the caretaker’s leg. Smith also coos and simpers as the lady of the manor, a Ludlam takeoff on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca de Winter, a second wife in a home where the first mistress, Irma Vep, perished under questionable circumstances. Then, Smith uses his liquid body, neck and head included,  to do the various moves associated with ancient Egyptians, neck popping forward and to the side and arms raised with palms up, as the slippery guide, Alcazar, who , for a price, escorts tourists and scholars to  “untouched” tombs.

Smith parodies Hollywood excess in playing handyman, diva, and exotic, and he is hilarious in the grand style of a sly, uninhibited sketch comedian. His Lady Enid Hillcrest may be more Carol Burnett than Joan Fontaine, but it is a camp delight that also manages to be elegantly feminine. His Nicodemus out-Depps Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, and his Alcazar would get a kudo or two from Sam Jaffe.

Joel Guerrero, billed in “Irma Vep” as Joel Angelo Guerrero, is no less adept assaying his trio of sink-your-teeth-in-them parts. Guerrero is strict and proper as the wily housekeeper who reveres the late Irma and has doubts that border on contempt for her new mistress, Lady Enid. A sinister homage to Judith Anderson mixes with a starchy, formal demeanor familiar from many plays and movies to make the housekeeper, Jane Twistden, a formidable foil and reluctant friend to the woman she now serves.

Guerrero transforms neatly from Jane to the Lord of Mandacrest, Edgar Hillcrest, who wears his tweeds and carries his rifle with pride that speaks of his nobility but whose eyes are always searching for something in the shadows, often in the direction of his deceased wife, Irma’s, portrait, left in place as a shrine, perpetual candle lighting it and all. Lord Edgar seems to have an irrational fear of his late wife, three years gone when “Irma Vep” begins. Guerrero also appears as two of the more mysterious characters, a masked intruder that visits Lady Enid one night when she is reclining alone and unsuspecting in Mandacrest drawing room and woman who is kept in a jail-like cage.

The actors make “Irma Vep” a literal riot. Smith and Guerrero are each deft comedians to can go from slapstick to moody, from broad to melancholic, and from rough-hewn to romantic within seconds. In their capable, competent hands, Reed’s “Mystery of Irma Vep” for Hedgerow provides non-stop laughter. Smith and Guerrero not only pass all boundaries when its comes to rolling eyes, taking strong poses, or lampooning gentility or evil intent at the same time their characters are practicing it. They handle Ludlam’s barbed and witty script with masterly aplomb.

Ludlam draws on more sources than du Maurier, and Smith and Guerrero toss off Shakespeare, Wilde, Poe, and Omar Khayyam with the same skill as they time a Ludlam joke, making each line and each clever use of or twist on a classic quote sing with all the humor and/or acid intended.

Everyone is well-served — Ludlam, his array of characters, and the Hedgerow audience. Reed and company are serving a comic treat, and people looking for a lark of a good time should partake of it.

In the last few decades, I have seen more than a dozen versions of “The Mystery of Irma Vep.” Ludlam’s play is so well crafted, it works when produced in a variety of styles. I have seen Gothic stagings, where all is dark and malevolent, and the ghoulish aspects of the piece are emphasized. I’ve seen the supernatural elements emphasized, so the werewolves and vampires mentioned get prime focus. I have seen it done like a light Victorian drawing room comedy where Lady Enid is more of an upset Gwendolyn Fairfax than an extra-paranoid Rebecca de Winter. Because  Ludlam is not beyond borrowing a scooch of Conan Doyle, I’ve seen it done like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, suspense supplanting humor as the dominant tone.

Jared Reed chooses to direct the play as all-out sketch comedy, one that lets costumes, versatile acting, voices, gestures, and Ludlam’s well-crafted lines do the work. In tribute to Ludlam and “Irma Vep,” most of the approaches to the play have been entertaining. The few that weren’t do not impugn Ludlam or the enduring quality of his comedy but are the result of productions that didn’t quite catch fire, often because they didn’t give the play a style or capitalize on its spoofing nature.

Reed’s production at Hedgerow is a regular conflagration of comic talent. It erupts with invention and creativity. Its actors, Smith and Guerrero, provide ingenious individual moments while playing off of each other in ways that elicit more laughs. Honest laughs. The extent of Smith and Guerrero’s fooling is extreme, but the intelligence and wit they use in spinning Ludlam’s yarn is a testament to the actors’ assurance and sharp instincts about what is funny within a context. A broad, broad context in the Hedgerow’s case. But one that gives smart, coy, and knowing performers  a chance to show all the potent weapons in their comic arsenal. And acting arsenal.

Reed and company, keep the action moving, make the most out of all that Ludlam hands them, and conduct a master class on how to sustain a high level of hijinks for duration of a two-hour play.

Carl Smith and Joel Guerrero prove over and over again how valuable they are to the local theater scene and to Hedgerow in particular.

Smith can contort into any position and mold his face into any expression. He can do pratfalls that would win applause from Dick Van Dyke and Stan Laurel. With all of his comic gifts and a sure knack for improvisation, he can create a romantic or suspenseful atmosphere and has a full range of voices that allow him to croak as Nicodemus, lilt as Lady Enid, and speak classic lines with the elegance of an Olivier.

Guerrero is the physical opposite of Smith. He uses his size to his advantage, squaring his shoulders to show the authority of Lord Edgar or using some bulk to show the weight advantage Jane may have over Lady Enid.

Best of all, Guerrero has the same grace as Jackie Gleason and other large men who move nimbly and with great style. In “Run for Your Wife,” Guerrero showed himself to be a great farceur, a talent we had a hint of from his clever turn in Feydeau’s “A Flea in Her Ear.” In “Macbeth,” he proved a noble Banquo, as cheeky in taunting the witches as he was staunch and honorable in his service to Scotland. In “Pride and Prejudice,” he was perfect as Mr. Collins. (Smith was also marvelous as Mr. Darcy.)

In “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” Guerrero gets to display all of the skill that transcends who he is physically. He shows he is an actor who cannot be typecast because he can fill any assignment and do it admirably.

Teaming two mega-talented and adept actors in a piece like “Irma Vep” is inspired. Reed kept all paced well and contributed to the wit and cohesion of the production. He is abetted in his effort by Chris Kleckner’s adaptable set, Constance Case and Alisa Kleckner’s shrewdly layered and archetypical costumes, Rusty Davenport’s conspiratorial lighting, Patrick Lamborn’s witty and complete sound design, and Grey Kelsey and Susan Wefel’s kooky but appropriate collection of props.

Comedy of the kind Reed planned is more difficult than it looks.  Big, broad comic staging can run amok. Reed’s “Irma Vep” finds the perfect balance between giving two able actors leeway and staying on track to tell a story and keep an audience somewhat involved with the plot and appreciative of all Ludlam’s examples of parody. The production smacks of genius harnessed to make entertainment paramount. What more can an audience ask?

“The Mystery of Irma Vep” runs through Sunday, April 6 at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m.  Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday,  and 2 p.m. Sunday. Weekday matinees are scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday, March 12 and April 2. Tickets range from $34 to $29 with discounts for seniors, people age 30 and younger, and students with valid I.D.  They can be obtained by calling 610-565-4211 or going online to www.hedgerowtheatre.org.

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3 comments on “The Mystery of Irma Vep — Hedgerow Theatre

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    March 11, 2014

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    March 11, 2014

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