BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Yes, Irma Vep is an anagram for "vampire,'' so you figure that The Mystery of Irma Vep is going to have plenty of references to the likes of The Mummy and The Wolf Man, as well as other late-night TV thriller-dillers such as Gaslight and (especially) Rebecca. But Ibsen and Shakespeare?
Near the end of Act 1, Brian Webb Russell, playing Lady Enid Hillcrest, the mistress of Mandacrest, brilliantly channels Macbeth's speech on the murder of sleep in Charles Ludlam's "penny dreadful,'' now playing at American Stage. Russell and Matthew McGee play multiple roles — men, women, assorted demons — in the cross-dressing, quick-change romp.
McGee covers the thespian waterfront as both Jane Twisden, the resentful housekeeper, and Lord Edgar, the tweedy master of the manor, who makes a memorable entrance from the moors, lugging a wolf carcass under his arm, a sprig of heather in hand. But it's Russell who has the choicest characters to spoof, especially his peg-legged handyman, Nicodemus, whose rough courtship of Jane never fails to get a laugh.
"You smell like a stable,'' Jane says, swatting Nicodemus with a rag, dodging his embrace.
"If you slept in a stable, you'd smell like one, too,'' he replies with perfect logic.
In some ways, Ludlam was the American Noel Coward, and his evocation of a Gothic ghost story is like a delightful, cockeyed homage to the master. A lot of the most flavorful speeches are by Lady Enid, a portrait in frilly pink in Russell's hilarious performance. As Alcazar, an Egyptian guide (Egypt? Don't ask), Russell has a striking resemblance to Harpo Marx in a fez.
After seeing Irma Vep, a friend e-mailed me that he thought it was more campy than vampirey, and there were times that all the knockabout farce became tiresome. Once he established his deliciously spooky mood, Ludlam didn't really have anywhere to go with the story, which sags in the second act.
Irma Vep is always worth doing, but it's kind of a shame that it's the only Ludlam play most theatergoers are likely to see. Wouldn't it be nice if American Stage or another bay area theater took a shot at Ludlam's adaptation of Camille or some of his many other plays, such as Bluebeard, Le Bourgeois Avant-Garde, Reverse Psychology or Caprice?
Todd Olson directed and let his talented pair do their thing. Jeffrey W. Dean was responsible for the detailed set, with fireplace, rich red wallpaper, a suit of armor, a painting of the lady of the house, French doors opening onto a garden. A highlight of the production is Nathan Leigh's sound design, an atmospheric amalgam of thunder claps, whistling wind, the patter of hailstones on the window, a howling wolf and a scream in the night, all scored to syrupy strings.
Note: Saturday's matinee was interrupted when smoke effects from the play set off fire alarms in the St. Petersburg College building that houses American Stage. The theater was evacuated for 10 minutes in the middle of Act 2, then the play resumed. Until theater staff figures out how to prevent a recurrence, there will be no smoke effects.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.