Informed that the gown she is wearing once belonged to Irma Vep (the mysterious first wife of Lord Edgar Hillcrest), the second Lady Hillcrest, Lady Enid (Jamie Torcellini), looks shocked. When the servant Jane Twisden (Joseph Fuqua) goes on to add that Lord Edgar has himself worn the garment when he’s been in a particularly frisky mood, Lady Enid’s response comes as something a bit more unexpected. “Well,” she reflects, “any man who dresses as a woman can’t be all bad.”
In the clever and wickedly entertaining world according to Charles Ludlam, the playwright responsible for The Mystery of Irma Vep, this observation comes as close as one gets to a serious message. As staged by director Jenny Sullivan and marvelously played by the two actors, Torcellini and Fuqua, Irma Vep brings topsy-turvy, cliché-saturated make-believe roaring to life through dozens of lightning-fast costume changes, double entendres, zany gestures, and over-the-top facial expressions. Yet at the core of this delightful show, for all its goofy props and hackneyed situations, there’s a beating heart and a yearning soul—and they belong to a man in a dress. For Ludlam, and for those like Fuqua and Torcellini, who dare follow in his dainty footsteps, the art of drag is much more than a titillating stunt designed to elicit laughter—which is not to say there’s nothing funny about it—it’s also a door opening onto the entire history of film and theater, only remade as an imaginary playground for some delirious scrambling about.
The story reaches a critical mass of absurd complexity early in the first act, and the reversals, curses, surprises, and twists scarcely ever let up. Lord Edgar has secrets associated with his adventures as an Egyptian tomb raider, and his mansion is the locus of any number of horror-movie staples, from werewolves to vampires. But through it all, the action remains centered on the characters’ needs—for love, for attention, and even possibly for blood. Torcellini has abundant fun portraying Nicodemus, the loyal retainer with a wooden leg, as well as playing Enid, the ingénue who flitters about the room in the most hysterically contrived manner imaginable. Fuqua’s turns as Lord Edgar and Twisden galvanize the already comic into the truly hilarious. Both actors also portray other characters during an Egyptian sequence at the beginning of the second act, but meeting them before their time might spoil some of the fun. Special mention should also be made of the technical wizardry required to make this fast-paced show happen.