The production of "The Mystery of Irma Vep" running at Everyman Theatre has a portrait that drips blood, an Egyptian sarcophagus, hidden passages out of which characters unexpectedly pop, a mad woman in the dungeon and such deliberately tongue-in-cheek dialogue as, "He killed the wrong wolf!"
As outlandish as the onstage antics might seem, they can't hold a snuffed-out candle to the frenzied activity taking place backstage. Three dressers and a stagehand conduct a carefully choreographed dance that allows the show's two actors to make up to 50 full costume changes during each performance, complete with Victorian-era petticoats, wigs, false teeth and top hats - often in two seconds or less. Oh, and they have to do it in utter silence and in pitch dark.
"To pull this show off, you need to have double the people behind the stage than in front of it," says Vincent Lancisi, Everyman Theatre's artistic director. "Their arms get tired from having to hold up all those heavy costumes. It's a workout, a marathon."
The demands on the offstage workers are so extreme that after "Irma Vep" debuted off-off-Broadway in 1984, the committee that hands out the Drama Desk Awards bestowed a special citation on the crew.
Not that the play is a cakewalk for its two-member cast. Actors Bruce R. Nelson and Clinton Brandhagen tackle eight roles, and several characters wear more than one costume.
"You get like a rat in a cage," says Everett Quinton, who is directing Everyman's staging, and who performed in the original Ridiculous Theatre Company production. "If the dressers do something in a different order than the one you've become used to, you're screwed."
"Irma Vep," written by Quinton's partner, the late Charles Ludlam, is a spoof of Gothic melodramas that borrows liberally from (among others) Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," Shakespeare's "Macbeth," Poe's "The Raven" and du Maurier's "Rebecca."
In the gleeful mishmash of a plot, Lord Edgar Hillcrest has recently remarried after the untimely demise of his first wife, Irma Vep, who was killed by a werewolf. The brandy-guzzling housekeeper, Jane Twisden, and peg-legged servant, Nicodemus Underwood, have their own secrets - and a more than casual interest in the fate of their new mistress, Lady Enid.
Have we mentioned that Lord Edgar is a famous Egyptologist? Or that "Irma Vep" is an anagram for "vampire"?
It is all exceedingly silly, and the show is full of visual and verbal puns. The backdrop for the Africa scenes contains a camel smoking a cigarette. (Think about it.) And, at one point, Lady Enid tells her husband: "It's a terrible thing to marry an Egyptologist and find out that he's still hung up on his mummy."
Still, there's no question that most of the fun in the show derives from the will-they, won't-they tension of watching those lickety-split costume changes.
In the small rectangular slice that consists of Everyman's backstage, the three dressers prepare to help Nelson change from Nicodemus to Lady Enid. Ashley Grant, Julie DeBakey Smith and Jillian Merriwether-deVries are dressed head-to-toe in black - to help them look invisible if they are glimpsed in the wings - and Smith wears a miner's-style cap with a flashlight attached.
The only general light is provided by three blue spots turned toward the back wall. Nelson exits and holds out his arms. One woman yanks off his frock coat - he's wearing a corset over his suspenders - while a second guides him into Enid's chocolate-and-white figured velvet gown. The third hands Nelson Enid's blond ringlets.
In almost less time than it takes to exhale, Nelson is back on stage, and Merriwether-deVries does a silent, impromptu victory boogie near the prop table.
"I've found that if I can count to two between the time an actor leaves the stage and returns, we'll get laughter and applause," Quinton says. "If I get up to three, there's no laugh."
It seems perverse, but the actors and crew can do their jobs almost too well. Like a magic show, half the audience's pleasure comes from knowing they're being fooled and trying to figure out the trick. Members of the audience who fail to carefully read their programs can get left out of the joke.
As one woman told her companion after scanning the printed cast list in the lobby: "I knew that all those parts were being played by men, but I didn't realize there were only two of them."
"Irma Vep" pioneered a technique for almost instantaneous costumes changes, a feat that has become popular both on stage ("Forbidden Broadway") and on screen ("America's Got Talent.")
"Charles was a magician," Quinton says. "He watched magicians and he read them, and he did magic tricks himself. He realized that it would be possible to use a sleight-of-hand that would allow these costume changes to take place in almost the blink of an eye."
But it was Quinton who designed the Victorian garb so it could be ripped off and refastened quickly and without damaging the material.
"I designed the costume changes, and I'm still kind of proud of them," he says. "For instance, the dresses have to be split in the back so they can be pulled on and off, but I wanted to make it so the audience wouldn't see the actors' legs, which were still in trousers. I added an extra panel that wraps around the back and fastens in the front."
Of course, no system is foolproof, and Quinton told the actors, "When it's time to go on, you go on, even if you're not finished getting dressed. There are times the Velcro doesn't fasten, and you're crab-walking across the stage.
"Once, when I was performing the show, I had to get someone from the audience to help me close my dress. 'Here,' I said, 'Do this for me.' He got all nervous, but he did it. And the audience loved it."
Ticket-holders for "Vep" should watch for the scene late in the second act when Nelson, simultaneously playing the parts of Nicodemus and Enid, carries on a conversation with himself. The bottom half of the actor's body is out of sight, but the top half is clearly visible. In perhaps 10 seconds, Nelson appears to change costume at least four times.
Another highlight comes at the curtain call, when director Quinton has the four main characters each take a separate bow, necessitating another flurry of split-second costume changes. During a recent rehearsal, the director coaxed Brandhagen and Nelson to milk applause to give the folks backstage a precious extra moment to get ready.
"Love, love, love," Quinton says. "Now cross to the other side of the stage, and don't walk too quickly. Let the audience love you to death. Love, love, love, love, love."
For some shows, dressers Grant, Smith and Merriwether-deVries, along with stagehand Tim Bucher (who briefly dons two fright masks during each performance) will be pulled on stage for the finale. Crew members aren't used to being in the spotlight, and initially the four held back.
"Don't be shy," Quinton told them. "Let the audience show their gratitude. You've earned every second of this bow."
If you go
"The Mystery of Irma Vep" runs through Dec. 13 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $22-$40. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.