Camp, pop culture abound in ‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’

For 21 years, playwright Charles Ludlam produced plays that borrowed their subjects from other works such as gothic novels, old movies, pop culture and Shakespeare. His forte was comedy, farce and camp. Ludlam’s Obie-winning 1984 gothic spoof “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” classified as one of the most produced plays in America, runs at The Old Globe’s Arena Stage July 31 through Sept. 6.

The story of Lady Enid and her husband, who is under the spell of his deceased first wife, is a satire of theatrical and film genres including melodrama, farce and the Alfred Hitchcock film “Rebecca” (1940). Part of the play’s lure is that two actors play seven characters. Jeffrey Bender, who recently appeared at The Globe in “Opus,” takes on the roles of Lady Enid Hillcrest, Nicodemus, Underwood, Alcazar and Pev Amri. Tony Award-nominated John Cariani will play Lord Edgar Hillcrest, Jane Twisden and an intruder.

Bender, who has a strong repertoire of physical comedy, recognized the challenge of playing camp and cross-dressing characters.

“You have to be willing to do anything on stage and have fun with it,” he said. “I don’t get to do camp that often, but I think physical comedy plays into camp.”

In addition to a physical presence, playing a role of the opposite sex requires an actor to psychologically get into their character. Bender began his journey by working on the dialect.

“I knew Lady Enid was going to be more of a prim and proper character, more upper-crust British, so I memorized my lines with a British cockney accent,” he said.

Director Henry Wishcamper, artistic director of Katharsis Theater Company, said his two actors are malleable professionals who will portray their many characters with ease and fun. He sees his job more about making sense of the play.

“The stakes of what’s going on are extraordinarily high to the point of ridiculousness almost every moment of play,” Wishcamper said. “The challenge is to create enough variation so the play doesn’t become hysterical all the time. It’s a tricky balance between something that is truthful and something that is heightened to the point of being absurd.”

Anyone who has seen the incredible quick-change artists on television realizes the extra challenge these actors face on the intimate round Arena Stage that is void of typical theater contraptions.

“The set, sound and costume designs are integral to this play to make it fit within the space,” Wishcamper said. “Robin Vest, the scenic designer, has down a clever job of collapsing the set down so the quick changes that are the heart and soul of the piece can be achieved in the same amount of time to achieve them on a proscenium stage.”

As with many stage productions, it’s the costumes that make the play come to life. Wishcamper and Bender agree that costumes by designer Jenny Mannis are really another character in “Irma Vep.”

“Jenny re-creates the world of classic Hollywood of the late 1930s and early 1940s with fun costumes,” Wishcamper said. “Sound is another important character in the play. Paul Peterson includes a wealth of amazing music of old classics, including Bernard Herrmann scores with the sweeping majestic romantic sounds and the crazy campy scores of the old B horror movies.”

Thinking about two actors having to step off the stage after one line and re-emerge to utter one line as a different character seems impossible, but is part of the intrigue Bender believes is appealing about “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”

“Patrons will enjoy the spectacle of how hard we’re working to do the quick costume changes,” Bender said. “They’ll also like the pure magic of the show. Its horror spoofs and comedic references to plays are spectacular. Playgoers are definitely going for a ride with this play.”

‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’

  • July 31 – Sept. 6
  • The Old Globe’s Arena Stage
  • San Diego Museum of Art’s James S. Copley Auditorium
  • (619) 234-5623