By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep is one of those shows that, since its 1984 Ridiculous Theatre Company premiere, has become an evergreen, suitable for every company, everywhere. It's a comedy that's simple to produce, and a crowd-pleaser requiring just two actors, a bunch of costumes, and a Halloween prop-filled set. I've seen it done crisp and tight, and I've seen it go the direction of Hedgerow Theatre's current production, loose and messy. I'm still waiting for the production that justifies its open spot on everyone's roster for some reason besides sheer economics.
A melange of movie monster madcappery, fog-on-the-moor manor house spookiness, Shakespeare, Poe, and a foray into ancient Egypt, Irma Vep is less about figuring out anagrams and hieroglyphs than it is about wondering how these actors can slip into and out of their costumes and characters so fast. Or, rather, at its best, that's what it ought to be.
Directed by Jared Reed, with Carl Nathaniel Smith and Joel Angelo Guerrero as the show's quick-change artists, this is a long way from its best. Visually, Smith and Guerrero make a good comedic pair: Guerrero is big and round in both feature and form, Smith, pale, fine-boned and slim. Both are required to work some drag. Guerrero plays longtime housemaid Jane and Lord Edgar, master of Mandecrest Manor. Smith is the manor's newest arrival, Lady Enid; its creepy groundskeeper Nicodemus; and a mysterious man sent to assist Lord Edgar during an archaeological dig.
Smith, employing a variety of accents and postures, has some success switching up his characters. However, from the show's first scene, Guerrero remains the same person with the same frantic voice and mien. Whether wigged or suited, he's exhausting to watch, and not in the way Ludlam intended.
Chris Kleckner's cramped set looks cheap, flimsy, and overcrowded, a mess that reads Target-made, rather than to the manor born. Constance Case and Alisa Kleckner's costumes fit poorly and reveal the clothing beneath them, thus ruining the show's fun. If you can plainly see that these actors just plop a dress on top of a suit, why even bother hiding the costume change?
Children might not notice the show's problems, and sure, it's been a long winter, you have to get them out of the house. But the rest of us grown-ups can keep waiting for someone to solve Ludlam's real mystery: Why can't anyone get Irma Vep right?
Through April 6 at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Rd., Media.
Tickets: $15-$34. Information: 610-565-4211 or www.HedgerowTheatre.org