A taste for late-night movies will be helpful for audience members of The Mystery of Irma Vep, opening this week at American Stage. Charles Ludlam's play is pure Gothic camp, with all seven characters — women, men, ghouls — played by two actors. The intrepid pair are Brian Webb Russell, recently in The Seafarer at American Stage, and Matthew McGee, whose credits at the theater include The Big Bang, Moonlight and Magnolias and The New Century.
McGee, 35, is also artistic director of the Show Palace Dinner Theatre in Hudson, where he recently co-created, directed and starred in Boogie Wonderland, a disco revue. Last week, I asked him a few questions about The Mystery of Irma Vep, in which he plays Jane Twisden, the resentful housekeeper, and Lord Edgar, master of Mandacrest.
Which movies should I watch before seeing the show?
Watch Rebecca. Any of the classic Hammer horror films, the ones with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein, all the Universal ones. I watched Tallulah Bankhead in Die! Die! My Darling!, which is absolutely horrific and wonderful at the same time. I watched a lot of the old Joan Crawford horror movies like Strait-Jacket and Berserk. I watched Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, with Bette Davis.
I have seen Irma Vep before, and I have never known why the action shifts so abruptly to Egypt. Why Egypt?
That's right, we go to Egypt at the top of Act 2. I think it's just a way to reference The Mummy, the great Boris Karloff movie.
It seems like you do a lot of drag roles.
Oh, yeah, it seems like I always have to do that (drag). There's not a show I've done where I haven't put on a frock. My background in performing comes from that world of camp and theatricality.
Do you look like a lady, or is it just a total spoof?
I'm a very handsome woman. I'm like Bea Arthur, a male impersonator. I play Jane Twisden to the hilt, like Dame Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. I give it that sort of weight and legitimacy, and I feel like it turned out to be funnier than if I just went a little crazy.
How do you play Lord Edgar?
He is kind of like James Mason and Bill Shatner put together. It's a frightening mix of those guys. It's an over-the-top macho character, and I think audiences will find it funny because it's the opposite of what I usually do.
What are some of your other drag performances?
I've been Mary Sunshine in Chicago a couple of times. I played the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. I played several drag characters in Tuna Christmas, including a waitress. I played Queen Nefertiti in The Big Bang. I played Mrs. Claus in a Christmas show. Even when I did The Producers, they managed to get me into a dress.
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Several Tampa Bay area theaters will honor actor Jeff Norton, who was murdered in July, with awards for theater excellence named for him. "The goal for the Jeff Norton Awards is to recognize the finest stage artists in the area and raise the public's awareness of the exceptional amount of professional theater in Tampa Bay," said Todd Olson, producing artistic director of American Stage. Other participating theaters so far are Gorilla Theatre, Stageworks, freeFall and Jobsite Theater. Theatergoers will be given ballots to nominate their choices in several categories. The awards will be given out Aug. 22, 2011, at the Palladium Theater.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.