There are moments in Kansas City Repertory’s delightfully absurd production of “The Mystery of Irma Vep” when you may decide you’re watching a duel of titans.
It matches two of Kansas City’s most accomplished performers, Mark Robbins and Ron Megee, in a comedic showdown that will sear indelible images into the viewer’s mind. The classically trained, vocally polished Robbins counterbalances the alternative-theater sensibility of Ron Megee, whose gifts include a unique aptitude for uninhibited physical comedy.
Charles Ludlam’s play, subtitled “A Penny Dreadful,” is a mashup of vaudevillian gags, literary allusions and melodramatic conceits written for two actors to play eight roles between them. Much of the humor comes from the quick costume changes, some of which are executed with breathtaking speed as Megee and Robbins play figures derived from 19th-century stock characters of both genders.
The story unfolds in the parlor of a home on an English estate surrounded by moors. Lord Edgar (Megee), a notable Egyptologist, has taken a second wife, Lady Enid (Robbins), although he’s never really recovered from the death of his first spouse, Irma Vep.
Much of the exposition is provided by a housekeeper, Jane Twisden (Megee), who fills Lady Enid in on Lord Edgar’s backstory, including a description of the death of Edgar and Irma’s only child, apparently the victim of a werewolf. There’s also the groundskeeper, Nicodemus (Robbins), a Cockney with a wooden leg, who has his own concerns about lycanthropy.
After a vampire takes a bite out of Lady Enid, Lord Edgar travels to Egypt hoping to unlock hidden answers. There he is assisted in his tomb-robbing expedition by Alcazar (Robbins), an opportunist wearing a fez. They come upon a sarcophagus holding the mummified remains of Pev Amri, a princess who comes to life (Robbins again, this time wearing a costume that has to be seen to be believed).
Eventually Enid discovers that Irma (Megee) isn’t dead at all, but has been imprisoned in a hidden cell because she won’t divulge the location of a cache of jewels.
Director Tom Aulino stages the action with a steady hand and close attention to timing. Ludlam’s pun-laden play celebrates pulpy melodrama and the blatant artificiality of theater and Aulino captures the essence of the humor. Scenic designer Wilson Chin evokes the look and feel of a Victorian playhouse and gives the parlor a sense of depth through forced perspective. He opens and closes each act with a red velvet curtain. Fereshteh Rostampour’s lighting design adds a lot to the show but the star of the design team is Lindsay Davis, whose costumes are thoughtful visual jokes that dovetail perfectly with the lunacy of this undertaking.
Ludlam, who died in 1987, founded the Ridiculous Theatrical Company and created a collection of wild plays of which “Irma Vep” is the most famous. The Rep production honors Ludlam’s memory and the singular style of theater he created.
There are serious laughs in this production, although you may find yourself deciding it’s all just a bit too frantic. Regardless, the talents of Robbins and Megee are what this show is all about.