This is pretty much what vaudeville was like” is what someone said to me, speaking in favor of Provo Theatre Company’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”
“You’ll notice vaudeville isn’t around anymore,” I replied.
“The Mystery of Irma Vep,” written by Charles Ludlam in the ’80s as a campy tribute to the old-style melodramas, has a delicious Halloween atmosphere complete with werewolves, vampires, and dark, stormy nights.
The comedy conceit is that five of the show’s seven actors are unable to perform, leaving Marvin Payne and Chris Brower — two venerable and very bearded actors — to play all the parts. (The five non-existent actors are even listed in the program, along with fake biographies.)
So there are numerous jokes based on the premise that men dressed as women are funny (especially if one of them is Marvin Payne), and on the actors’ stumbling through the roles they don’t normally play, making quick costume changes and killing time when they’re left alone on stage.
The story takes place at Mandacrest, an old Victorian mansion. Lady Irma Vep has died, and her husband, the “Hamlet”-quoting Lord Edgar (Brower), has recently married diva actress Lady Enid (Payne). There are secrets in the house, though, known by the maid, Jane (Brower) and the Scottish groundskeeper Nicodemus (Payne). Irma and Edgar once had a son, for example, who apparently got carried off by a wolf. Then there’s the mysterious nature of the painting of Irma that sits over the fireplace….
Brower and Payne play all the parts with great focus and energy, with Brower tending to be more frantic and Payne coming across as steady and unflappable. (His high-falutin’ Lady Enid is hysterical, as is the indecipherable Scottish accent he uses for Nicodemus.)
The show has two significant problems, both of which stem from Charles Ludlam’s script as well as J. Scott Bronson’s directing. One is the middle sequence, in which Lord Edgar goes to Egypt to find clues about vampires, et al. The sequence has a few laughs, but not many, and it feels very long. Compounding the infraction is the eventual realization that the entire scene was unnecessary except that it leads to a resolution between Edgar and Enid — a resolution that Ludlam could have figured out a much more efficient way of arriving at.
The other problem is that even though the two actors are supposedly improvising quite a bit to make up for their missing co-stars, it is apparent that most of the play was written so that no more than two characters are ever supposed to appear onstage together anyway. They also seem to know the other parts amazingly well, considering they’ve never played them before tonight. (One or two foul-ups, followed by references to “not having watched this part during rehearsal,” doesn’t excuse this.)
Men dressed as women are funny, but for how long? Two actors playing several roles is enjoyable, but for how long? Broad, melodramatic acting is entertaining, but for how long? The silly acting style may be accurate for the theatrical time period being represented, but it also ensures that none of the characters are very deep — which makes it hard to care what happens to them for the entire length of the play, which results in the play feeling too long.
Nonetheless, the giggly-creepy Halloween atmosphere can’t be beat, and the show definitely provides laughs, especially in its first half. Payne and Brower are good at what they do, and their combined charisma (even when it’s distributed over seven characters) adds a lot to this family-friendly seasonal treat.
Marvin Payne is best known among Mormons for playing the father in the "Saturday's Warrior" video produced in the 1980s. He generally plays dignified, authoritative roles; seeing him in a dress and being goofy for two hours was rather delightful for me.