at Interplayers through Nov. 12
reviewed on Friday, Oct. 28
Watching ham actors can get tedious. Watching good actors ham it up, though -- that can be sublime.
Damon Mentzer and Christopher Bange are good actors -- which is a good thing, because they constitute the entire cast of The Mystery of Irma Vep, the madcap monster mash that has werewolves and mummies springing through open doors on Interplayers' stage through Nov. 12.
Playwright Charles Ludlam's plot is 19th-century mellerdrammer with dollops of '20s Egyptology -- large, ridiculous, dripping chunks of it -- hurled into a comedic stew.
In a parody of all the bad exposition at the start of every well-made play ever written, the maid of the mansion and the crippled caretaker discuss how much the widower of the manor misses his first wife despite having already married his second. (It's actually Mentzer in drag, a Scots coquette in a baggy housedress, and Bange doing the Igor routine, dragging his bad leg behind him and catching all the burrs that his thick Yorkshire accent has strewed on the ground behind him.) Soon Lord Edgar and Lady Enid themselves appear; now it's Mentzer with as the stiff-upper-lip aristocrat and Bange who's in drag, all flouncy hair to go with his equally flouncy dress and wrists. And so the fun begins -- in and out of costumes, swapping accents and genders in a riot of thespian fun.
Bange is the scream of this show, with four of his personas on display: Lady Enid Hillcrest, with hands ever fluttering to her breast, a fussy old baggage who makes warming up to play the zither a comic ritual all its own; Nicodemus Underwood, the beastly stable hand who struggles simply with sitting down -- the one leg's wooden, you see; Alcazar, a mustachioed Egyptian guide who drives a hard bargain on everything _but_ the hieroglyphics; and Pev Amri, a dusty nymph of the Nile who knows how to do a lot more than just walk like an Egyptian.
I kept taking notes on the highlights of Bange's performance and his technique. (He's a trained clown and mime, and it shows.) He has the vocal intonations to clearly differentiate among the characters he inhabits: the imperious dame; the werewolf, greedily sniffing the air; the flunky who puffs out his cheeks to punctuate perilous pearls of pompous palaver; thrusting his palm skyward to display the dreaded Mark of Cain, all Christopher Lloyd-style exasperation; the strange little Egyptian who makes an entire comedic tour out of the syllables of "sarcophagus," mispronounced.
Bange's quartet of weirdos is, collectively, the performance of Spokane's season so far.
There are flaws in the pacing. Both actors need to take the air out of some overlong pauses; at just the second preview performance, they hadn't yet properly gauged all the audience guffaws. The first-act curtain line fell badly flat, failing to signal intermission's arrival. Some stage business went on too long; other bits weren't pointed enough. Even at just two hours with intermission, the evening occasionally dragged. But what's remarkable is how well Ludlam sustains the hilarity, piling one threadbare development on another until it feels like we've seen every bad haunted-mansion, curse-of-the-werewolf yarn ever told.
Ludlam's campy humor will perhaps not be too everyone's taste -- prudes and curmudgeons come to mind -- and the humor sometimes teeters near the juvenile. (But Ludlam's sex jokes and literary allusions assume an intelligent audience --which helps to leaven the silliness.) But I have not felt that wave-upon-wave-of-laughter feeling in the theater in some time -- no war, no gas prices, no looming constitutional battles, just the contentment of smiling and anticipating the next laugh as I watched two lunatics prance and cavort across a stage: good old belly-laughing, escapist comedy.
For comments on Nike Imoru's directing, John Hofland's set, Damon Mentzer's acting and more, pick up a revised version of this review at Inlander racks on Thursday, Nov. 3.
If you read this online, consider buying tickets for Oct. 29 -- your last chance to catch this show before the wolves howl and the goblins creep on Halloween.