Fear the Absurdity

Anna Perilo and Ben Beck star in “The Mystery of Irma Vep”

It was a dark and stormy night. . .ah, to hell with it.  It’s The Mystery of Irma Vep and it’s currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This show is truly a spectacle that you have to experience so I won’t blow things with any kind of a plot description.  Charles Ludlam’s script is very meta as the show is aware that it’s a show with the twist that all but two cast members are unable to perform forcing the two available thespians to play every role.  And play them they do.  Way beyond the hilt as they tell the story of the tragic Hillcrest family plagued by memories of a dead spouse, werewolves, mummies, and more.  This is truly a howler of a comedy fit for the Halloween season.

Jim McKain understood that the way to tackle this show was not to take it seriously at all.  Nothing is off limits and the actors are given the leeway to ham things up to the extreme.  Still, you can see McKain’s disciplined hand with the tightly controlled pace and the nuances that make the multiple characters played by the two actors seem like different people.  McKain also takes full advantage of the beats of this farce, milking every drop of comedy from the tropes of huge dramatic pauses, cheesy “duh DUH duh” organ chords, and sound effects that make one feel like you’re watching an old radio show from the 1940s.  He’s also guided his actors to gutbusting performances guaranteed to give audience members a great ab workout as they guffaw through the night.

Ben Beck’s star shines brightly in this show as he’s able to use the full breadth of his character acting prowess.  Whether he’s the wooden legged servant, Nicodemus, making lewd double entendres towards the maid; the buxom Lady Enid Hillcrest trying to keep her husband from pining over his late wife; or the scheming Egyptian guide, Alcazar, looking to snare a few bucks from Lord Edgar Hillcrest, Beck clomps, howls, and frets his way into your funny bone.  Some of his best moments are his improv moments where he seems to break character to make a witty aside or reaction before snapping back to whatever character he is playing.

Anna Perilo will have you gasping for air before the night is through.  Her sense of timing is deadly accurate and she is an acting chameleon.  Her amazing characters include the very Cockney maid, Jane, who has an attitude well above her station and enjoys a good draught of booze and the mysterious lrma Vep.  But her best character is her rendition of Lord Edgar Hillcrest, the very British Egyptologist who’s quick to hunt down the wolf plaguing his sheep with guns a blazing and gamely exploring unopened tombs.  But her histrionics with Hillcrest’s temper tantrums and fear of “the horrors” will leave you wheezing for breath.

I absolutely loved Matthew Hamel’s set which included its own stage with clam footlights and a very British manor with its fireplace with smoldering embers, massive French doors, and fine oak woodwork.  Combined with Andrew Morgan’s properties of books, bric a brac, and portraits, I felt like I was watching something straight off the BBC.  Timothy Vallier has a very fitting horror score for the show that sometimes gives you a wink and a nudge when it segues towards 80s hits.  Chris Wood’s lights embellish the story’s absurdities with dropdowns to blues and reds for scary moments, a cacophony of colors when a mechanism is activated to reveal a sarcophagus, and flashes of lightning.  John Gibilisco’s sounds keep things humming with gunshots, thunder claps, and smashing glass.  Lindsay Pape’s costumes suit the period and the over the top feel with Lord Hillcrest’s tweeds, Lady Enid’s billowing, poofy, pink dress, Alcazar’s fez and robe, and the Grim Reaper outfit adopted by a grim intruder.

It’s the perfect treat for the Halloween season with its spooky theme and hammy antics and you’ll have a ripping good time during a night of humorous horror.

The Mystery of Irma Vep runs at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Nov 7. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $36 with prices varying by performance. Tickets may be purchased at the OCP Box Office, by phone at (402) 553-0800, or online at OmahaPlayhouse.com. The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

Photo provided by Colin Conces

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