Quick, Quick Change – ‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’ comes to Ensemble

Joseph Fuqua, left, and Jamie Torcellini, right, are a handful to keep track of in "The Mystery of Irma Vep." David Bazemore Photos
Joseph Fuqua, left, and Jamie Torcellini, right, are a handful to keep track of in “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”
David Bazemore Photos

Murder. Mystery. Mummies. Vampires. Wolfmen. Is this Christmas? At Ensemble Theater Company, it sure is, with the preview night Thursday of “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” a very light, very ridiculous work of theater meant to bring some levity in the middle of a dramatic season. Featuring only two actors but over eight roles, the evening requires many quick costume changes behind the scenes (over 30!), and loads of gender switching. In other words, yes, we have men in drag. Deck the halls!

Charles Ludlam wrote 29 plays in his short life, most of them comedies. Many are considered by critics and companies to be unmountable, as they were so intertwined with Ludlam’s persona. But “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is not that kind of play. Possibly Ludlam’s crowning achievement, it provides a series of memorable characters as well as postmodern pastiches of everything from “Rebecca,” “Wuthering Heights” and “Gaslight” to penny dreadfuls and Universal horror movies. His company was called the Ridiculous Theatrical Company — located in Greenwich Village, New York City — and the name indicates what Ludlam was after.

Jenny Sullivan returns to direct this play as Ensemble’s yuletide offering, though there’s no direct Christmas theme to the original play. No matter, there is now. She did the same thing for last year’s “Tea at Five” play, adding the holiday to the final act. (The playwright not only approved, but wants to add it to his next published version of the play.)

While Sullivan was working with cast member Joseph Fuqua during Rubicon’s production of “Hamlet,” the two got talking about the play backstage and thought it would be fun to do. Sullivan had seen it four times already; “it was that fun. I had to keep seeing it to ask, ‘how did they do that?’ ” she says. “We started dropping the idea into the heads of various theater companies and Jonathan (Fox, Ensemble’s Artistic Director) jumped at it.”

“This is the opposite of Hamlet,” laughs Fuqua.

Jamie Torcellini joins Fuqua as the other half of the cast equation, having come from his second straight year performing in “Billy Elliot” in both New York and Chicago.

A lot of the fun in the play comes from the lightning fast changes, where an actor has to disappear as a man and come back in less than 10 seconds as a woman.

“If you could just see backstage that would be a show in itself,” Fuqua says. “We have a great costume designer, doing stuff with magnets. The quicker they are, the more magical it is for the audience. The stage is empty only once.”

Fuqua remembers seeing the original Ludlam production in New York. “I was young, I didn’t even know what drag was,” he says. “But I remember the magic.”

Fuqua also compares many of the roles to those in “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the classic British drama about the lords and ladies of the manor and the servants who make their lives functional. And one senses a bit of frock envy. “I don’t get to be pretty because I’m the servant class, but Jamie gets a pretty dress with a bustle,” he says. “But I do get to play the lord of the manor.”

The play may be light fare, but the tech needed to pull this off, along with impeccable timing, takes major effort to make it all seem effortless. “There more than just the quick changes,” says Sullivan. “There’s sounds and light and special effects. You only have a short time to do these things. The play flies by so quickly, you wind up asking what just happened.”

Fuqua gets the last word: “Our motto is, we’re too short to suck.”

When: Thursday, Dec. 2 through Sunday, Dec. 26. (no performance on December 24 & 25, 2010)
Where: Alhecama Theatre, 914 State St.
Cost: $30 to $50
Information: (805) 965-5400

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