Christmas shows at the Ensemble Theatre headquarters during Jonathan Fox’s tenure as artistic director have been well-meaning but slight. As an antidote to serious drama they have provided some polite laughs with plays that usually wear out their welcome by the second act. Last year’s “Tea at Five” was more successful, a Katherine Hepburn bio that worked precisely because it wasn’t about Christmas.
And now with “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” Ensemble has a great show on its hands. There’s no mistletoe to speak of, just wolfsbane to ward off lycanthropes. But it is imbued with a very silly, crazed energy, just what we need as the year comes to a close.
Watching “Irma Vep” in the Alhecama Theatre, one wants to imagine what the original Charles Ludlam-written and -starring production might have looked like at the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in Greenwich village back in 1984. Was the stage even smaller? Did those audiences know what they were in for, compared to ours?
The play is a mish-mash parody of Victorian penny dreadful melodrama, Gothic psychological drama, with bits of Hollywood film and British pantomime. All the roles are taken on by two actors, Joseph Fuqua and Jamie Torcellini, although even the program assigns a cast of fake actors with names such as Sara Tonin, Warren Peace and Benjamin Dover (“just call me Ben!”). After each hasty exit, several seconds pass, and the actor reappears as a different character, dress, wig and all. This, in itself, is funny. But there’s lots more.
Lady Enid has married into the estate of Lord Edgar Hillcrest and is now living in the ghostly mansion overlooking the moors. Head housekeeper Jane, dowdy and stern of jaw, still has an affinity for the previous Lady Hillcrest, aka Irma Vep, now deceased, whose portrait hangs above the fire — a nod to the film “Rebecca.” Groundskeeper Nicodemus is also on hand, mostly to chase Jane about the room, but also to talk about the wolf that both he and Lord Hillcrest are trying to track down. Lady Hillcrest cannot compete with the memory and possibly the curse of Irma Vep, and soon, spooky, dangerous, supernatural things begin to happen. We get vampires, wolfmen and mummies, and to describe more would take away some of the humor and audacity of the evening.
We also get lots of men in drag. Mr. Fuqua is properly long of face for the sourpuss Jane, but as Lady Enid, Mr. Torcellini does get to wear all the best frocks, though his wig does look a bit like frazzled red spaghetti. (He even gets a laugh when he twirls it absent-mindedly with his fingers and gets them caught.)
Mr. Fuqua’s Lord Hillcrest is blustery, Terry Thomas-style upper crustiness, and hilarious throughout. Mr. Torcellini also has a comic face that bends and stretches just enough for every laugh.
With all these elements working, the play still could have fallen apart, but it doesn’t. Part of that comes down to pacing — the story slows down when it needs to, it allows the audience to catch up then whisks us all along, and then as it reaches its two climaxes, one at the end and one before intermission, it hurtles by. Two hours in the theater never seemed so short.
“Irma Vep” also achieves a perfect pitch — props here to Jenny Sullivan, who also directed “Tea at Five” last year. Both performers have to act inside this absurd world but leave a toe outside just to keep us all in on the joke. They have to juggle the conviction of character while wigs teeter and moustaches droop. At the same time they have to be big-time cartoons.
Meanwhile, the accents are spot on, not just in dialect but in class levels. Mr. Fuqua has noted his love of “Upstairs, Downstairs” in interviews, and here it pays off. Having seen enough American actors botching these distinctions in various productions over the years, it’s good to report that both actors acquit themselves nicely.
Let’s not forget the stage hands behind the scenes who must be helping the two actors in and out of their clothes with the speed and skill of pit stop mechanics. They deservedly get a bow at curtain call.
Credit is also due to Tom Giamario, who has created a beautiful drawing room set, with hidden panels, spooky paintings and enough weapons on the wall to make for an exciting second act. We also get a short trip to an Egyptian tomb and a “sarco-faggus” of exquisite design. The play is a hoot just to look at.
If you are feeling a bit humbuggy about this holiday season, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” should provide the antidote.
‘THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP’
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; through Sunday, Dec. 26 (no performance on December 24 and 25)
Where: Alhecama Theatre, 914 State St.
Cost: $30 to $50
Information: (805) 965-5400, www.ensembletheatre.com