By Amy Patton
There’s a new production in town at Bay Street Theatre that is delightfully timed to perfection both on the stage and behind the scenes.
I’m talking about the “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” a comedic three-act farce written by the late playwright and actor Charles Ludlam and helmed by director Ken Elliott.
The show opened Saturday evening to an enthusiastic crowd that giggled, yukked and gasped its way through the two-hour performance (one intermission) and is packed with slapstick humor, wry comedy and compelling special effects. Much of Irma’s content is borrowed with material from an amalgam of Ludlum’s literary and film inspirations such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” and Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” to name just a few. Several aspects of Victorian melodrama and elements of classic gothic novels are also woven into the twists and turns of this cheeky comedy/mystery.
The two actors who star in the production, Tom Aulino and David Greenspan, are clearly seasoned pros who between them play a total of eight characters, including but not limited to a zombie, a werewolf, a vampire and an Egyptian mummy. In gender-bending moments, both men appear in drag during many door-slamming scenes that take place in a decidedly gloomy yet wacky English countryside manor dubbed Mandacrest.
Add to this a layer of whodunit; part of the fun is trying to figure out what in the world happened to the mysteriously missing and presumably deceased Irma Vep, who is Lord Edgar’s first wife. Although Irma herself is not present on stage, her final image sits in portraiture above the Mandacrest fireplace on the set for most of the production.
Beautifully orchestrated and flawlessly executed quick-change artistry helps to move along the narrative of twists and turns in this play with sound and music engineer Kevin Aloi handily adding to the overall feel of the production. A trio of stagehands crucial to pulling all of this off, and who deserve every bit of praise, are Raul Luna, Gabrielle B’entremont and Carol Solla. That crew, which is aided by several interns during the play’s run through the end of July, helped pull off the show’s special effects as well as its signature lightning-speed costume changes.
Meet Lady Enid, played by Greenspan. She’s Edgar’s kooky second wife, who seems to be on an inevitable collision course with one of the spooky ghouls who lurk at times around the manor, presumably seeking out the blood of a human.
Of course, it’s not hard to figure out that the uptight Jane Twisden (Aulino), Edgar’s loyal housekeeper, has her loyalties invested with the late Irma and isn’t a fan of the new spouse.
Then there’s the second act’s Laurel and Hardy-esque arrival in Egypt where Lord Edgar (Aulino) tempts fate with a local guide by unlocking an ancient sarcophagus that contains a surprise or two.
Another key player in Irma Vep is Nicodemis (Greenspan), the estate’s crusty old swineherd who also serves — with much comic relief — as Edgar’s crippled manservant.
The delights in working with all of these complex characters, remarked the show’s director Ken Elliott, was what originally drew him to joining the project at Bay Street in March of this year. The 58 year-old theater professor said one of his favorite stage genres is what he calls “the theater of the ridiculous.”
“I’ve directed a lot of shows in the past that have the elements of Irma Vep. I think that’s why [the producers] asked me to do it. It’s really the masterpiece of the genre in my opinion. I wanted to bring out the rich colors, complexities and many layers that Ludlam wove into his play.”
As for the Bay Street venue, he added, “It’s a great place to work. It was fun to stage it there but also a challenge in some ways,” Elliott noted, saying that the small size of the theater works well to promote the valuable intimacy between the cast and its audience but can pose logistical problems when it comes to the play’s special effects.
Actors Aulino and Greenspan are no strangers to the production of Irma Vep either. Eighteen years ago, Greenspan took the same role in a project at another theater and Aulino has three past acting credits on his resume for the stage show.
Irma Vep’s author, Ludlam, died tragically at only 44 years old in 1987 due to complications from AIDS. During his artistic career, he often made forays into cross-dressing, camp and utilized classic complex literary references in his work. But the playwright’s love for absurdity in his written pieces and his charming use of social satire really helped to distinguish this talented writer and actor whose memory lives on through his imagination and audiences.
“The Mystery of Irma Vep,” one of Ludlam’s most celebrated and iconic works, is no exception.
The Mystery of Irma Vep will end its run July 28 at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. Call the box office at 631-725-9500 for tickets or visit baystreet.org for performance calendar information.