Back in the mid 1980s, Jamie Torcellini paid a visit to New York City’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company to see its new hit show, The Mystery of Irma Vep. The fast-moving farce featured two men—writer/director Charles Ludlam and Everett Quinton—who played a variety of roles as they parodied a string of old movies, including Wuthering Heights, The Wolf Man, and Rebecca.
At regular intervals, one of the actors would exit the stage, only to return almost instantly, playing a different character and wearing a different costume.
“I don’t remember a lot,” Torcellini said, “but I remember spending intermission thinking, ‘How are they doing that? I don’t understand how this is humanly possible.’”
The Broadway veteran, who is just off a two-year stint in Billy Elliot, discovered how it’s done four years ago when he starred in and directed a Philadelphia production of the now-classic comedy. Torcellini is delighted to be returning to the material in an Ensemble Theatre Company staging, which opens Thursday, December 2, at the Alhecama Theatre.
Jenny Sullivan’s production will also feature Joseph Fuqua, who has shared the stage with Torcellini in such Rubicon Theatre Company gems as Man of La Mancha and You Can’t Take It With You. “We’re like brothers,” Torcellini said of his costar. “It’s been impossible to not laugh during rehearsals.”
Ludlam, who died of AIDS in 1987, was a major figure on the off-Broadway scene in the 1970s and 1980s. (His film roles include a memorable portrayal of a sleazy Southern lawyer in The Big Easy with Dennis Quaid.) The New York Times called him “a highly praised and deeply cherished Renaissance man of the theater,” one who developed a cult following before ultimately finding mainstream success.
Of his 29 plays (most of which he directed and starred in), Irma Vep is the one that has both stood the test of time and demonstrated cross-cultural appeal. It has been a huge hit in Japan, Brazil, and numerous American cities.
To quote from the press release for the original 1984 production: “The play is cast in the mold of the penny dreadful [a 19th-century form of popular fiction, forerunner of the modern pulp fiction] and draws on the Grand Guignol and other forms of low theater, using stage illusions and quick changes to create a comic, Gothic evening including vampires, werewolves and an Egyptian mummy.”
What more could one ask for?
Torcellini, whose Broadway credits include the musicals Cats, Beauty and the Beast, and Man of La Mancha, called the play a mystery and a melodrama. But he also pointed to another crucial element: satire.
“It’s a takeoff on Wuthering Heights, and some of the acting choices they made in those black-and-white films back then,” he said. “There’s a lot of hand to the mouth, backwards, as a way of signaling fear.”
The story centers on Lady Enid Hillcrest, the new wife of wealthy aristocrat Lord Edgar Hillcrest. As she soon discovers, Edgar is still in love with his late wife, Irma Vep, who died under mysterious circumstances. Other characters include Nicodemus Underwood, a butler who is transformed into a werewolf, and Jane Twisden, a disgruntled housekeeper with a secret or two.
Torcellini is playing the four roles Ludlam himself portrayed in the original production—two of which are women. “You have dialogue with yourself offstage while you’re changing,” he noted.
The show is something of a departure for Jenny Sullivan, who directed The Clean House and Tea at Five with Ensemble, the current Love, Loss, and What I Wore at the Geffen Playhouse, and too many shows to mention with Rubicon. She is known for her subtle character work—and not for farce.
“At first, she thought, ‘How am I going to attack this?’ But the way she has attacked it is, for my money, dead on,” Torcellini said. That approach involves clearly telling the story and delineating the characters, and letting the laughs flow naturally from there.
“You start from a real place, and then heighten it,” Torcellini said. “There’s a lot of story to get out, and if we’re not listening to the story, it’s just a bunch of nonsense. A lot of the comedy comes from real emotions. There are some things written in the script that can be interpreted as the actor commenting on what’s going on—lines like, ‘Where’s Lady Enid?’ ‘She’s changing. You know how long women take’—when the change literally takes four seconds,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s necessary to do any nodding or winking [to point such moments out]. I’ve seen it done in an extremely campy way—very over-the-top. I don’t think it works as well that way. It needs to be more real.”
That said, this ain’t Ibsen. (However, the dour dramatist is represented later in Ensemble’s 2010-2011 season.)
“It’s a good time at the theater—no tears, just laughter,” Torcellini said. “At first, I thought it was more appropriate for Halloween than Christmas, but we’ve added some holiday decorations. It’s good, clean fun—well, mostly clean.”
The Mystery of Irma Vep previews December 2 and 3 and shows December 4-26 at the Alhecama Theatre (914 Santa Barbara St.). Tickets are $30-$50, with discounts available for students, seniors, and anyone younger than 27. Call 965-5400 or see ensembletheatre.com.