Lightning flashes, screams in the night, strange creatures haunting the fog-shrouded moors, the sarcophagus of an ancient Egyptian queen--The Mystery of Irma Vep is back. The late Charles Ludlam's so-called "penny dreadful," made up of bits and pieces of Jane Eyre, Rebecca, the novels of Wilkie Collins, and the entire output of Universal Studios from 1930-45, has been revived Off Broadway at the Westside Theatre, in a deluxe new production.
The main joke of Irma Vep is that the entire cast of characters is played by two male actors. In this production, Everett Quinton, Ludlam's longtime partner, plays tormented heroine Lady Enid Hillcrest, the grotesque manservant (and occasional werewolf) Nicodemus Underwood, the sinister Egyptian guide Alcazar, and Pev Amri, a centuries-old mummy who springs back to life. Co-star Stephen DeRosa plays Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Enid's equally tormented husband), the sinister cockney maid Jane Twisden, and the mysterious Intruder. As the convoluted plot unfolds, both actors are forced to switch characters, and genders, at a moment's notice.
John Lee Beatty was given the task of fitting two full settings into the tiny Westside Theatre stage. The living room at Mandacrest is designed in a style he calls "Hollywood Regency--it's from the late 30s and early 40s. It's an overwrought Romantic style that isn't completely founded in any particular architectural period, although it's usually early 1800s." Key elements include French doors at stage center, a fireplace which conceals a jail cell, a gorgeous Oriental screen, and various pieces of overstuffed furniture, all done in a vivid red-green-gold palette that recalls the lush tones of early Technicolor films, and framed in a gold proscenium. Act II features the pyramid interior, which is notable for its intensively detailed scenic painting. "Hannah Caudle from Chalkline Studios painted it," says Beatty, adding, "We had one afternoon to do it. We used a book of Egyptian hieroglyphics. There are things you can't see from the audience--ladies in various states of undress and different activities on th e wall, that you don't always see in hieroglyphics." The scenery was constructed by Noble Theatrical Productions
To allow for a swift transition from the English moors to the Egyptian tombs, Beatty's set was designed in three parts, with two periaktoi at stage left and right, and a large, double-sided piece taking up the center. Still, he says, accommodating both sets "was nerve-wracking. The thing that saved me is you only have to make room for two people."
Beatty adds, "We were on a horribly small budget," so the gold proscenium frame was taken from a Manhattan Theatre Club benefit he designed. A lot of the set details came from the Renovator's Supply catalog, while other pieces were purchased from Pearl River, a store on Canal Street. Also, Beatty adds, "We built most of the props and the furniture in the aisle of the theatre, including the sarcophagus. It's the prop show from Hell."
Costume designer William Ivey Long had some challenges of his own, in designing baroque outfits that could be switched in the blink of an eye. Furthermore, he says, "This was a humbling experience, because my director [Quinton] was the original costume designer--and he won the coveted Maharam Award for it."
Long says the period of the show is "1895, because that's the most exaggerated moment--the huge leg-of-mutton sleeves and the tiny, tiny little waist--absolutely ignoring the body underneath. It's a very clever choice, because you can disguise masculine shoulders. I got out books of late 19th-century fashion, and Everett and I went through them, page by page. Every time he oohed over a picture, I put a yellow Post-It on it. When he did an extra ooh-ooh, I put two Post-Its on it. Then I noticed that every double Post-It was a striped dress; Everett adores vertical stripes."
But where to find the suitably lavish materials on a budget? Fortunately, Long had a binful of drapery and upholstery fabrics from Scalamandre (the Manhattan fabric house) saved up for the ongoing decoration of his Chelsea home, which became the basic stuff of the Irma Vep design. For Lady Enid's striped dressing gown, the designer had a moment of invention worthy of Scarlett O'Hara: "There was this curtain in my garden room in my country house in the Berkshires. It's the widest stripe ever known to God and man--I think it's 10" wide. I took it down, dusted it off, and there was just enough material for two costumes--we have doubles."
Other costumes required other flights of invention. Jane's maid uniform is, says Long, "a Chanel suit fabric. It's 100% silk, because Stephen DeRosa is allergic to wool. For Jane, plaid and checks are the words--even the fabric for her apron, which actually was an old curtain that I got at the Haddassah Thrift Store in New Haven. I've had it for 18 years. I thought I was going to make a curtain out of it, but it was just too fabulous."
Then there's Enid's final costume, which Long calls, "the kitchen sink dress, because it has everything known to mankind--feathers, lace, over-embroidery, lace embroidery. We made the stripes by alternating brocades in garnet and gold." For Pev Amri's emergence from her tomb, Long designed a gold sheath based on Quinton's original design, then went wild with Egyptian details. When Enid dons an outfit worn by the late Lady Irma, it's a riot of pink and lavender "based on three of Charles James' dresses, from the book, The Genius of Charles James," says Long, invoking the name of the famous couture designer who was a mentor.
About the costumes' construction, Long says "Everything is flatlined; before you make the pattern, you lay down a layer of cotton twill and then stitch them together. It stiffens it and makes it sturdier. The sleeves are extra wide, for stuffing your hands through. The peignoirs, made out of nice linen curtains, are unlined, because I wanted them to flow--so they're beautifully finished off on the inside. The costumes were made by Werner Kulovitz at EuroCo, with his associate, Janet Bloor. Jennifer Love made Jane's costumes and Lord Edgar's fabulous herringbone suit."
Topping off Long's costumes are the wigs designed by Zsamira Sol Ronquillo, who also designed the show's makeup. Ronquillo says her biggest challenge is creating wigs that go on and off in seconds. Thus, "They're not secured," she says. "They're made to fit the actors' heads. They have elastic inside and, after a while, they mold themselves. I make my wigs on a 24" head block, which is the biggest available, and, once I'm through with them, they stretch themselves. When they come off the block, they're already molded, so it's much easier to put one on a head. Each one fits like a skullcap underneath the wig."
Ronquillo adds that the wigs are "all nylon. I don't use hairsprays made for human hair. They're made to bond with the nylon fibers, so each wig keeps. Normally, a wig takes one to two days, because of the mixture of hairsprays that I use, to keep the wig rubbery and bouncy. The hairspray takes two hours to dry. After it sets, I add another coat. I build it up in layers, like lasagna."
Keeping things running backstage are dressers Michelle Gore and Richard J. Nash, Jr. Gore says she and Nash began working with the actors during the second week of rehearsal, using rehearsal pieces to get familiar with the show's frantic pace. Gore, who calls the show "a big old rollercoaster," also says that her most challenging moment comes in Act II, "when Lady Enid [Quinton] goes to the French doors and calls out for Nicodemus [also Quinton] and she ducks her head in and out--she's Nicodemus and Enid at the same time. That's the thing I'm thinking about for the entire show--will I get the wig on right? Will it fall off?"
Nash adds that although each dresser is assigned to one actor for purposes of maintenance, both of them work together on virtually every costume change. "Once I get the back undone on a costume, Michelle might pull the dress off and take off the wig, then hand the actor a new wig or hat, while I put a new jacket on." Nash says the toughest sequence comes in Act I, beginning with what they call the "Intruder" sequence. "They go from Nicodemus to Lady Enid and from Lord Edgar to Jane, back and forth--that's a lot of wigs and coats and nightgowns flying on and off all at once."
In spite of everything, Long insists Irma Vep is serious business, a little grander than Ludlam's original, but not campier or too self-conscious. "Our intention was to play it straight. My intention was to make very beautiful 1895 dresses, for rather stocky ladies. The proportions change, but you fit them beautifully. John just wanted to do a beautiful Oscar Wilde drawing room that could only be 7' tall and 30' wide." Or as Quinton wrote to Long in his opening night note, "Silk! It's a great fabric. Who knew?"
The Mystery of Irma Vep features very Gothic lighting by Paul Gallo and sound by One Dream Sound. Jacob Harlow was the associate scenic designer and Martha Bromelmeier was the associate costume designer. Other personnel include production carpenter Don Roberts and props coordinator Wendy Loomis. Having received some of the best reviews of the season, the play continues its run at the Westside Theatre.