Curio Theatre Company’s production of The Mystery of Irma Vep won me over before the performance even began. Charles Ludlam’s enduring spoof of melodrama and penny dreadfuls is ideal programming for the Halloween season, with its abiding sense of silliness and spookiness. Here, a pre-show playlist that included “Monster Mash” and “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” put me at ease that director Steve Wright would find the correct campy tone for the piece.
So too did Paul Kuhn’s set, visible to the audience as we find our seats. Kuhn presents Mandacrest, the central country estate, not as a rambling and dignified manor house but as a seedy, somewhat decrepit fortress of solitude. The blood-red walls with subtly peeling paper practically drip with secrets. And the ever-present, ever-watchful portrait of the late title character that hangs over the fireplace looks curiously haunted. In terms of aesthetics, the design is another home run for a company that’s become known for doing a lot with minimal resources.
Looks can be deceiving, though, and the staging itself didn’t manage to sustain my initial goodwill. Wright, Kuhn (who also co-stars), and actor Richard Bradford are all talented theater artists who have impressed me greatly in the past. Curio, which wears its scrappiness on its sleeve and fosters an ensemble-driven approach to performance, should be a perfect fit for Ludlam’s style. (I’ve always felt his plays, especially Irma Vep, work best under more modest circumstances.) But in trying to put all the elements together, something here just doesn’t click.
On opening night, frequent line stumbles suggested a lack of adequate rehearsal time. This also seemed evident through inconsistent pacing that alternately sped up or slackened throughout the two-hour evening. When working at their most frantic, Kuhn and Bradford step over the sneakier jokes embedded in Ludlam’s script—they don’t come across as funny on a surface level, much less a subtextual one. At other times, the tempo slows to such a point that we lose all sense of comic farce.
Timing is key in a play where two actors portray upwards of a dozen characters. Costume changes and personality shifts must feel effortless. Although some of Aetna Gallagher’s frocks and suits look appropriately garish and outrageous, the actors don’t always execute their quick changes with maximal precision. This, too, leaves the audience waiting for the next joke to come along.
Most distressingly, scene changes often seemed endless. At the performance I attended, the pause following the penultimate scene continued for such a length that most of the audience assumed the play was over and burst into curtain-call level applause, only to realize there was still more to come.
More comedy to come
Bradford manages some charming individual moments, mostly in the guise of Jane Twisden, Mandacrest’s wiry and haunting housekeeper. He’s less successful as Edgar Hillcrest, lord of the manor, lacking the necessary stoic darkness the role needs. Kuhn—a very fine performer in Curio’s recent productions of All My Sons and The Winter’s Tale—does little to differentiate between the myriad characters he plays, from Nicodemus Underwood (the estate groundskeeper with a devil of a secret) to Lady Enid (the naive, frivolous new wife of Lord Edgar). The pair generate precious little chemistry together.
Ludlam’s style is both deceptively simple and surprisingly difficult. I’ve seen few productions of Irma Vep that successfully pull off the Egyptology subplot that nods to eighteenth-century England’s fascination with the East. (Here, it stops the show in its tracks.) There are aspects of Curio’s assumption that seem like overcompensation, including a soundtrack (designed by Lyell Hintz) that distractingly underlies nearly everything with thunderclaps and other spookily suggestive noises.
This season, Curio’s 15th in West Philadelphia, will be devoted to comedy. The company’s Irma Vep didn’t make me laugh as much as I’d wanted it to. I’m hoping that will be corrected by what they have in store.
What, When, Where
The Mystery of Irma Vep. By Charles Ludlam. Directed by Steve Wright. Curio Theatre Company. Through November 23, 2019, at the Calvary Center, 4740 Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 921-8243 or curiotheatre.org.
The Calvary Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Seating is general admission, with accessible seating available at every performance. This production uses strobe lighting effects. Patrons with epilepsy or other light sensitivities are asked to inform front-of-house staff prior to entering the theater.