Can you solve The Mystery Of Irma Vep?
The questions go beyond the title character, Irma. How many actors are in the show? What number of characters do they play – man, woman or other? How often do they change from one character to another? How many classic, gothic, horror, and Hollywood movies can those characters spoof in one stage show?
We can answer some of those questions in this report. You’ll have to witness the show firsthand to solve some of the other mysteries. And still a few questions may never be deciphered in this hilarious whodunit.
The story starts on a “dark and stormy night,” as Lady Enid arrives at an estate with her new husband – Lord Edgar Hillcrest, no relation to the local neighborhood – who is under the spell of his deceased first wife – Irma, of course – and haunted by something that’s prowling the grounds. Following the clues so far? Strange things begin to happen around the new Lady of the house while the mystifying portrait of Irma hanging over the fireplace gazes down upon her.
“The main story is that Lord Hillcrest, who is the head of this English Manor house, has brought home a new wife,” further explains Henry Wishcamper, the director of this Charles Ludlam comedy. “Their honeymoon period is interrupted by a vampire that may – or may not – be Lord Hillcrest’s first wife, Irma Vep.”
“So the principle characters are Lord Edgar Hillcrest and Lady Enid,” Wishcamper continues. “Plus there is their servant Jane, who is a very uptight housekeeper, and Nicodemus, who is a hunchbacked stable boy.”
Four characters so far, for those keeping notes. Five, if you count in Irma. In total, actors Jeffrey M. Bender and John Cariani play a “cast of thousands,” taking on the four main roles and a collection of supporting roles – plus a mummy. Yes, add a mummy to the list.
“The two play a total of 10 characters,” Wishcamper confesses.
“I can tell you I am playing four characters, but I can’t tell you who they are because I don’t want to give anything away,” Cariani admitted, answering questions after a recent rehearsal. “I can say I play a woman, but I am not a very pretty woman – which is kind of hard on my ego. Neither is Jeff (Bender), though.”
Bender and Cariani switch back and forth between roles with lightning speed, a trick that can be just as entertaining as the plot.
“The show is described as a full-length quick-change act,” Wishcamper says. “It’s two men that play all the rolls in the play, both men and women. They leave the stage as one character and return quickly as another character.”
How fast this change happens is still unclear, even as the director and actors approach opening night. “I’m not sure. I would have to look it up in the script,” Cariani says. It can be as fast as one line of text. Sometimes they have scenes with themselves (off stage) and change characters instantly.
“To make the show more complicated, we’re doing the show in the round,” Wishcamper explains. Most theatres in the round (an audience on all sides of the stage) have four entrances. The current Globe stage – which is temporary housed in the Arena Stage at the San Diego Museum of Art’s James S. Copley Auditorium while a new permanent facility is being built – only has two entrances, each on opposites sides of the stage. “They exit through one door and enter through another door, which necessitates them crossing all the way around the entire theatre while changing clothes at the same time.”
“I know it takes us about 20 seconds of so to run from one exit to the other entrance, and the change is done on the other side. It doesn’t give you much time to do the costume change,” Cariani continues.
Cariani and Bender started early in develop the personalities of each character, thanks to the assistance of a Dialect Coach. They both started with where the characters live vocally, and how to differentiate them through how they spoke.
“Sometimes, they switch characters when they are on stage. Sometimes, they switch characters when they are off stage. So, the vocal portrayal is very important to the audiences’ understanding,” Wishcamper explained of the early rehearsals.
“She (the Dialect Coach) made the great suggestion that we figure out how each of our characters would laugh,” Caniari recalls. “Finding out how each of the characters laugh – and I’m not going to tell you who they are – has helped a lot.”
Cariani continues to talk about his vocal training, slipping in suspicious indications of the characters he plays. “One of the funniest thing is Jane, the woman servant I play, has a lower voice than Lord Hillcrest, the man I play. We decided to make Jane a ridged, frigid woman.”
Did you pick up the clues? In contrast, Bender plays Lady Enid Hillcrest and the hunchback, Nicodemus. The two started to complete their roles once they added costumes. “Both of them, seeing what their costumes were going to be and putting the costume on in fittings, really helped them find where these characters live physically.”
Still, the results have not been perfect, at least not in rehearsal.
“I think every time they run off stage, they have a split second panic of ‘Who am I next?’” Wishcamper says.
“That happened the other day (during rehearsal),” Cariani confirms the director’s comments. “Jeff came on to do a scene and he said, ‘I have no idea what I am doing. I have no idea what line I am supposed to say.’ Today it happened to me. I walked out, and I said ‘I know I am supposed to be here, but I have no idea what scene I am supposed to do.’”
That craziness is part of the fun of watching the show, but still has its limits.
“It should appear like it is fast and frantic, but it can’t be done that way. The more frantic we are, the worse this play is,” Cariani says, explaining, “It has to look like it’s frantic, but it has to be really controlled.”
“My hope is that whatever happens on stage seems effortless and easy, and as an audience member, you have a sense of how frenetic everything is back stage in order to create that ease on stage,” Wishcamper adds.
How many changes? How many costumes? How many times? The evidence is still inconclusive. The estimate is 20-30 costumes for the 10 characters in the show, but “probably more,” Wishcamper discloses. Cariani cannot even begin to count how many times he and Bender swap parts, but Wishcamper guesses around 50 times.
“It’s an old vaudeville routine. It’s a lot of antics,” the director says. “They go through a whole sequence of vampire and old Hollywood movie spoofs.”
“There are multiple vampires, there is a mummy that comes to life, there is a werewolf,” Wishcamper hints. “There are enough stories in this play to fill six or seven in this shows. They are pulled directly from 1930s and 40s Hollywood movies and they are all perfectly recognizable. They feel very familiar and almost like old friends before you even know who they are.”
Did you catch that clue? Add a werewolf to the list of suspects.
“It’s the coolest derived play that I have ever been a part of it. It takes stock characters and situations we know from horror movies and replays them and then turns them on their ear,” Cariani adds. “It’s scary and hilarious, and spectacular in the true sense of the word because it is a spectacle.”
Part of the spectacle is not just watching the two actors rotate through their cast of thousands, but also the spooky effects and booby-traps throughout the intimate set. It’ll take a keen detective’s eye to catch them all.
“The set has it’s own character. The costumes have their own character,” Wishcamper says. “There are a lot of low-tech theatrical special effects in our show that are a lot of fun, which are part of the spirit of the play.”
Spirits? Another clue, or just a tease to mislead you?
“Very little of this play makes sense,” Cariani says, backing up his claim with the fact the show was originally produced by the Ridiculous Theater Company. “There are red herrings at every turn. You think it’s going to be this, than this, than this – but they (the characters) keep misleading you. Then you realize you haven’t been led anywhere. That’s the fun of it actually.”
The mystery of Irma Vep can still be solved, if your detective skills are up to par. “The rest of the play is just ridiculous.” Either way, Cariani says, “I think the audience is going to have the best time.”
The Mystery of Irma Vep
Presented by The Old Globe
Aug. 6 – Sept. 6 (with previews before opening night)
1363 Old Globe Way (in Balboa Park)
Box office: (619) 23-GLOBE (234-5623)
- All photos by Craig Schwartz, courtesy of The Old Globe.