Theater Review: ‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’ — a madcap evening of theater

Stephen F. Vrtol (seated) with David A. Gingerich (standing). (Photo by John Cobb)

By Edith McCauley
Theater Critic

Artists’ Ensemble’s (AE) choice for the opening of its 10th season is perfect. It showcases every aspect of professional theater. From the multi-level set that encompasses a Victorian mansion that becomes an archaeological site in Egypt to the cast of two playing a multiplicity of roles, Irma Vep is a challenge to any company.

Director Richard Raether meets the challenges and brings to the audience an evening of astonishing entertainment. David Gingerich and Stephen F. Vrtol III play all the roles in Charles Ludlam’s “penny dreadful.” His work received negative reviews, including “This isn’t farce, this isn’t absurd. This is absolutely ridiculous.”

Taking the criticism as a positive, his company became The Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and Irma Vep became one of its classic productions. Basing much of his casting on the playwrights of the past, many of the female roles were played by men, and Gingerich and Vrtol meet the incredible timing of innumerable costume changes and male-to-female characters with stunning accuracy.

It seems only a matter of seconds for them to pass through a doorway as a dowdy handyman, and reappear in just moments as a beautifully-gowned Victorian lady. Gingerich is housekeeper Jane Twisden, and Lord Edgar Hillcrest, while Vrtol plays Nicodemus Underwood, Lady Enid Hillcrest and the Egyptian guide, Alcazar.

Dressers are essential to this work, and Kris Walters and Dianne Cobb have their work cut out for them. Racks of costumes must be in constant motion to dress the two actors. Angelo O’Dierno’s set makes it possible for all these changes to take place.

In seeing the final production, it is hard to imagine Raether’s problems in staging this extremely complicated work. His professionalism is evident in every scene. Of course, the plot includes vampires, mysterious disappearances and possible murders, so there is never a dull moment.

AE continues its 10th season with The Gifts of the Magi, a musical, opening Dec. 6. For tickets and information, call (815) 394-5004.

Congratulations to Richard Raether for his nomination for a Rockford Area Arts Council award for his outstanding work.

From the Sept. 18-24, 2013, issue

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