Premiere issue Autumn 2002

Silly for silly's sake

The Mystery of Irma Vep
Written by Charles Ludlum
Directed by James Saba

Diversionary Theatre
4545 Park Boulevard, Suite 101, San Diego, Calif.
Through Dec. 21

There are times when the last thing one wants is a another Serious Look at Life. When one finds the constant drumbeat of sobriety to become tiresome.

When you just need a good laugh.

And when that time arrives, one will need a play like "The Mystery of Irma Vep."

Self-described as a "Penny Dreadful," Charles Ludlum's ode to 19th and early 20th century literary and theatrical cheesiness is an over-the-top celebration of the silly. James Saba's production at San Diego's Diversionary Theatre wrings every bit of corniness out of Ludlum's wonderful script, and the two-man cast vamp their way through as camp a play as has ever hit the boards.

In hearkening back to the days when there was more demand for entertainment than there was time to write classics, "Irma Vep" captures not only the mostly forgotten era of early 20th century live theater and dime novels, but also of Hollywood's era of B movies — films with predictable plots and clichéd dialogue that still drew audiences hungry for something new.

Ludlum's farcical script thus has mummies and werewolves and secret passages and exotic trips to Africa. It's main setting is a huge old manor away from town, a manor haunted by the ghost of the master's first wife, Irma Vep.

The Mystery of Irma Vep

There is no narrative to speak of — the storyline can generously be described as loose, and exists mostly to provide a frame on which Ludlum can hang all his tributes.

But the production is so in-character with Ludlum's script that a storyline would only get in the way. Instead of a story, we get Farhang Pernoon and David McBean joyously playing multiple characters — complete with lightning-quick costume changes off-stage that never slow down the flow of the craziness.

Pernoon plays the maid, Jane, as well as Lord Hillcrest and a mysterious intruder. McBean plays the stablehand, Lady Hillcrest and a couple of extras.

Having only a two-person cast is part of the fun of "Irma Vep" — it is so obviously transparent that it can only add to the sense of silliness.

David Weiner's set is another large portion of the success of this production. As with his earlier sets for "The Killing of Sister George" and "Fifth of July," Weiner's design is a brilliant use of the small, off-center stage at Diversionary, turning its idiosyncrasies into a strength.

Review by Jim Trageser. Jim is a writer and editor living in Escondido, Calif.

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