“The stage! How disgusting!” exclaimed one character in “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” when told of another’s past life as an actress. This self-reference wasn’t lost on the audience at the ’92 Theater last weekend, and was greeted with chortles and applause. Of course there was another level of self-reference because you could easily call “Irma Vep” disgusting…or at least grotesque. Grotesque in the best sense, mind you: exaggerated, violent, and ridiculous, making fun of human nobility and folly. It was a great piece of comedy, one that more or less maintained its light touch for the full two and a half hours it ran, which is no small feat in itself.
Directed by Associate Professor of Theater Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento, “Irma Vep” was also the performance aspect of Mark McCloughan ’10’s thesis. McCloughan and Jaime Maseda ’12 starred, and between them played seven (count them, seven!) characters in this satirical, melodramatic farce by Charles Ludlam.
Where to begin with this exquisite piece? First, both McCloughan and Maseda were excellent, and deserve major recognition for their work on the show. With McCloughan performing four characters and Maseda three, each had several rather dramatic transformations to make, sometimes in the space of a few seconds. The structure of the show favored McCloughan as an actor (which I suppose is sensible, given that it is his thesis), since Maseda actually only had two characters of substance, but both actors demonstrated their chops.
What makes a farce like “Irma Vep” great is precisely what can make ordinary theater terrible: stock gestures, over-emoting, metatheater, stylization, and camp. With their painted faces and heavy shifts between accents, body types, and vocal pitches, subtlety was clearly not McCloughan or Maseda’s watchword. And naturally, it was brilliant, all the more so because the campy posing and speechifying was an actual part of the melodrama when it was popular. Humans are transformed into beasts, men into women, and “bad” theater into a riotous night of entertainment.
In the department of transformations, major congratulations are also due to the costume crew, who had the task of changing the actors from one ridiculous outfit to another, sometimes in a matter of seconds—this while the actor needed to enter from the opposite side of the set. Not a single cue was missed, and they tested some truly high limits: one of my favorite transformations was when McCloughan, playing a character who had been bitten by a werewolf, ran upstage and outside to look at the moon, reaching towards it; when he pulled his hand back, it had transformed into a paw. Flawless!
The sets and lighting (designed by Adjunct Professor of Theater Marcela Oteiza and Henry Thornhill ’11, respectively) were also well done, though less awe-inspiring. The traditional box set did not do a very good job of covering the lights to the side and above—perhaps a limit of the ’92 Theater, but distracting nonetheless, at least at first. For example, the show opened with flashing lightning and crashing thunder; without any actors to distract me, I watched the clearly visible spotlight behind the doors on the set flicker with great interest. Once the show began in earnest, though, I was fully invested in its performance, and my attention only rarely wandered beyond the limits of the set. Thornhill’s design was colorful, and definitely unsubtle—occasionally I felt that it was meant to be subtler in places, but the show was of course a farce.
Cheryl Tan ’11, who designed the sound for the production, also deserves a mention. I became aware of the sound design a little over halfway through the performance, which is always a good sign: the classical and overly dramatic scores Tan selected fit perfectly with the action onstage. (If you’re wondering what “overly dramatic” means, the “Carmina Burana” suite by Carl Orff was featured prominently.) The props, presumably designed by “Properties Master” Ben Smolen ’10, increased the camp: highlights included a very floppy dummy for a brief moment when three people needed to appear onstage, a “dead wolf,” a painting that spurted blood when shot, and an “Egyptian sarcophagus” sporting breasts?
In all, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” was a credit to the Theater Department: it was a funny, enjoyable, night of so-campy-it’s-great entertainment. There were, I should mention, deeper and more potent themes buried in the cheesiness: obsession, helplessness (particularly in the case of the most pathetic Nicodemus), and love were all touched on. But let’s be honest: one of the best parts of this show was the simple joy of watching a silly, fun performance. And as McCloughan said (rather smugly) in the guise of Lady Enid, “Any man who dresses up as a woman can’t be all bad.”