Giddy, crisp, full of laughs

Comedy: Director Kasi Campbell's Rep Stage production of `Irma Vep' is a hoot from start to finish.

February 17, 2000|By Nelson Pressley | Nelson Pressley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It is a dark and stormy night. Lightning flashes, illuminating a cockeyed, gloomy English country house with a creepy portrait over the fireplace. The music sounds like a bargain basement version of something out of a Vincent Price horror movie.

Welcome to Charles Ludlum's camp classic "The Mystery of Irma Vep." Director Kasi Campbell has fashioned such a giddy, crisp production at Rep Stage that you'll probably be laughing before the actors take the stage.

And when the actors do appear, the fun really starts. Bruce Nelson and Brian McMonagle are like comic dervishes, whirling in and out of various costumes (lots of drag here) as they play all seven characters in what Ludlum called "a penny dreadful."

When Nelson first appears, it's as a servant named Nicodemus, and his false teeth are so outrageously huge you wonder if they were stolen from a horse. Nicodemus also has a wooden leg, which Nelson swings almost high as a place kicker as he clumps noisily about the stage. He's a hoot just to look at.

So is McMonagle, who plays Jane Twisden (another minion, it seems) in a wig that doesn't quite hide his sideburns. A little later, McMonagle is back as Lord Edgar Hillcrest, a flaming figure in jodhpurs and mascara who was married to the late Irma Vep.

They cling to their dead at Mandacrest, the "Wuthering Heights"-like name of the haunted manse. A wolf prowls the grounds -- possibly a werewolf -- and there are hints of vampire activity. To get to the bottom of it all, Edgar takes a quick second-act trip to Egypt, where an ancient mummy may help him find the truth.

The play is stuffed with gothic riffs and literary allusions. Double-entendres and clever jokes abound, and Nelson and McMonagle send them home with rapid-fire repartee and an occasional puckish glance at the audience.

The show is full of slapstick; wait until you see the business that attends the resuscitation of a mummy princess, or what gets let out of a dungeon hidden behind a set of sliding bookshelves back at Mandacrest, or the carpentry involved when Nicodemus has to screw his leg back in. The costume changes come fast and furious as the action heats up, which makes "Irma Vep" an athletic event as much as a literary farce.

Nelson and McMonagle are splendid together -- witty and boisterous as they slice through Ludlum's delicious dialogue and preposterous plot twists in high comic style. Nelson is all atremble as Lady Enid Hillcrest, Edgar's new wife, inevitably appears in a huge blond wig and tent-like pink gown. He also plays an Egyptian guide named Alcazaar, who has a surprising way of pronouncing the word "sarcophagus."

McMonagle is a delight as the tough Jane, the feral Edgar (whose eyes are very wild) and in other guises that can't be mentioned here (don't want to spoil the suspense).

Campbell's tight production gives the actors lots of help. Jonathan Blandin's lighting is splendid, creating effects both spooky and silly (Scott Burgess' sound design accomplishes the same thing). Lou Stancari provides a dark angular set, and Lonnie Fullerton's funny costumes are tailor-made for quick changes.

Everything is wonderfully orchestrated and the desired effect is achieved: The show feels like a runaway train merrily plowing into gothic conventions.

Rep Stage presents "The Mystery of Irma Vep" at Howard Community College's Theatre Outback, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. through March 12. Tickets: $18 Fridays, $19 Saturdays, $15 Sunday matinees, $12 Sunday evenings. Student tickets are half-price; $3 off for senior citizens and groups of six or more. Information: 410-772-4900.

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