by Michael Bowen & r & 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 -- and a good thing, too, 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 (at Interplayers 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 bad exposition, the maid and the caretaker discuss how the lord of the manor misses his first wife despite having already married his second. (It's actually Mentzer in drag and Bange doing the Igor routine, dragging his bad leg behind him and slobbering through a thick Yorkshire accent.) 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 and wrists. And so the fun begins -- in and out of costumes, swapping accents and genders in a riot of thespian fun.
John Hofland contributes a versatile, stylized set -- a goldenrod backdrop for "the library drawing room of Mandacrest, the Hillcrest Estate" that conceals some of its own surprises, accompanied by three oversize "books" that remind us what authors the two nincompoops onstage keep quoting. Twenty minutes before intermission, we're plunged into an Egyptian tomb with more mummies than you can wave a pith helmet at.
As the maid and Lord Edgar (and in a couple of other roles it would spoil the fun to reveal prematurely), Mentzer has more of the straight-man set-ups and fewer opportunities to generate guffaws. But he gets mileage out of the maid's role, straightening chairs compulsively and tending to the master's wishes.
But Bange is the scream of this show, with four of his personas on display: Lady Enid Hillcrest, with hands fluttering to her bosom, a fussy old baggage; 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; and Pev Amri, a dusty nymph of the Nile.
Bange has the vocal intonations to clearly differentiate among the characters he inhabits: the imperious dame; the werewolf, greedily sniffing the air; the strange little Egyptian Bange's quartet of weirdos is, collectively, the performance of Spokane's season so far.
Director Nike Imoru calls for some effects -- ominous organ music, that haunting portrait on the wall -- that are almost too creepy. The idea may be to heighten the suspense so the ensuing explosion of laughter will be all the greater, but it made the audience reverential.
But Imoru's handling of the physical comedy in the entrance to the mummy's tomb is exquisite: The audience howled most in this sequence, I think, because we were being asked to use our imaginations. Both actors, however, 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 flat and didn't signal intermission's arrival. 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 to everyone's taste -- prudes and curmudgeons come to mind -- and the humor sometimes teeters near the juvenile. But I haven't felt that wave-upon-wave-of-laughter feeling in the theater in some time. Irma Vep offers good old-fashioned belly laughs and escapist comedy.
Monday's announcement that Imoru is resigning as artistic director is a disappointment, and worrying for Interplayers' future; in the meantime, at least, we have this sparkling production to remind us of what Interplayers can do.