Review: 'The Mystery of Irma Vep'

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Luigi Sottile and Dito van Reigersberg in "The Myster of Irma Vep" at Ambler's Act II Playhouse. Photo by Bill D'Agostino.

By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall during reheasals for the frantic production of The Mystery of Irma Vep, which is unraveling, or detonating, or maybe mushrooming, on the stage of Ambler’s Act II Playhouse.

But it would have been nihilistic — I’d be splattered within moments of landing on the scenery. This version of Charles Ludlam’s classic quick-change goof gets funnier as it moves into a second act that just can’t stop, with more stage business than a Shubert Organization exec.

Any two actors (and their director) who put on this “penny dreadful,” as the late Ludlam called it in the subtitle, are empowered to plan a night of action. At Act II Playhouse, they exhaust themsleves. But then again, not just any two actors and director are staging this piece, which is snowflake-light and just as transient, begging to be fleshed-out with schtick.

This Irma Vep, the story of a wacky manor house in England, is the work of Act II’s associate artistic director, Harriet Power, and two agile and go-for-broke actors, Dito van Reigersberg and Luigi Sottile — each as much at home with Shakespeare as with, well, obviously, this.

Van Reigersberg, a genuine original, is one of the founders, and a co-artistic director, of the city’s outre Pig Iron Theatre Company, known as well for his acting as for his monthly nightclub act in drag as the character Martha Graham Cracker. To see the imposingly tall performer in Irma Vep before a suburban audience is some kind of statement — the first possibility that comes to mind is, we're not in Kansas anymore.

With his eyes googly or sinister or haltingly shy, he plays the manor’s mistress, its pig-farming aide, an Egyptian fixer and an entombed beauty. Opposite him — or in concert, depending on the character — is Sottile, who has many roles at People’s Light, the Wilma and Lantern theaters and others behind him. Sotille is as dashing as the master of the mansion as he is stiffly prim as the mansion’s maid.

Together, they tease the audience, change characters in a flash (hooray to the unseen dressers, Lauren Myers and Kristen Watts), break into song out of the blue while accompanying themselves on instruments,  and generally spin grand nonsense about a dead woman named Irma Vep.

Their acting stands out in a play that calls for that — and in this case, Power, the director, has them both not just chewing the scenery but feasting on it. (The impressive sets for Act II’s compact stage space are by Dirk Durossette.) Given the inventive and improvisational talents of the two actors, I’d like to know what they came up with that Power decided to leave out. But I would have had to be that fly on the wall, hanging on for dear life, and I wouldn’t be here to tell about it.
 
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
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The Mystery of Irma Vep: Presented by Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, through Nov. 20. Tickets: $27-$33. Information: 215-654-0200 or www.act2.org.

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