The only mystery in "The Mystery of Irma Vep" is how the two actors who dash, hop, limp and swirl through the Everyman Theatre staging of Charles Ludlam's inventive and amusing play are still standing at the end.
Portraying at least three characters apiece, and with gender-crossing ease, the duo of Clinton Brandhagen and Bruce R. Nelson plugs tightly into the crazed world that Ludlam fashioned in 1984. His play, slyly subtitled "a penny dreadful," contains varying amounts of Victorian melodrama, Gothic horror, vaudeville, Hollywood and maybe even a little of "The Carol Burnett Show."
"Irma Vep" enjoyed an original two-year run off-off-Broadway by Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, with the playwright and his partner, Everett Quinton, tackling the multiple roles. Since Ludlam's untimely death in 1987, Quinton has continued to be closely associated with the play, both as a performer (he starred in and produced the award-winning off-Broadway revival in 1998) and, as in the case of this Everyman production, director.
Quinton obviously has a better command of Ludlam's deliciously over-the-top style than anyone in the business, so his guiding hand counts for much. His keen appreciation for the split-second timing essential in a successful farce can be felt at every twist and turn here, and he has Brandhagen and Nelson weathering heights of camp with panache.
The greater your appreciation for campiness, the more laughs you'll enjoy, but that's hardly the only element; Ludlam was much too clever to confine himself to a target audience. With "Irma Vep," he cast a wide net for comic potential and reeled in a plot that just keeps on giving.
Picture it: Mandacrest, a stately manor "on the moors." Lord Edgar has taken a new wife, Lady Enid, even though he hasn't fully recovered from the death of his first one, the beloved Irma. The housekeeper, Jane, isn't exactly thrilled with the new lady of the house. And Nicodemus, the wooden-legged swineherd on the estate, gets curiously edgy when the moon is full.
The action shifts to Egypt and a hunt for important clues in an ancient "tomba" (as Lord Edgar's suspicious guide pronounces it), before all the dots are finally connected - or disconnected. Sight gags, including a painting that feels pain and a seriously soporific tome, are nearly as numerous as verbal ones, with bits of Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe and more sneaking into the conversation.
Since the whole vampire thing is hot again today (oh, if you haven't noticed by now, "Irma Vep" in an anagram), it makes Ludlam's inclusion of this particular stalker in the plot mix seem all the more astute.
From the "wrong wolf" slain early on to the vision of Lady Enid and Jane daintily plucking out strains of "The Last Rose of Summer" on dulcimers, the play provides an exhilarating ride through genres, doors, a sarcophagus (the Egyptian guide has some trouble pronouncing that word, too), and, ultimately, through the recesses of our collective memory.
The two cast members, supported by a hardworking backstage crew, reveal equally remarkable flair for creating totally distinct characterizations and bouncing between them in seemingly effortless fashion.
Brandhagen deftly reveals Jane to be a wonderfully prim, but combustible, creature; his Lord Edgar is at once suave, vulnerable and slightly dim. Nelson's wide-eyed, wide-toothed Nicodemus is a volatile hoot, and the actor gets just as much comic mileage out of portraying Lady Enid, who flits into the picture as a vision of unfulfilled Victorian womanhood. Nelson also hits the mark as the Egyptian guide, conjuring up an accent of Peter Sellars-worthy distinctiveness.
Both men prove admirably adept as quick-change artists, and Nelson makes the most of a scene that requires him to be two characters at once onstage.
At the speed this show moves, there's always the chance that something will go slightly astray, but count on Brandhagen and Nelson to know how to capitalize on the unexpected for an extra laugh. (On opening night, the actors came close to breaking each other up, but that only added to the fun.)
An attractively functional set by Jim Fouchard, lit by Colin Bills, and the dead-on costumes by David Burdick complete a production that celebrates the enduring freshness of Charles Ludlam's madcap mystery.
If you go
"The Mystery of Irma Vep" runs through Dec. 13 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Tickets are $22 to $36. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.