Ray Wills and Monte Wheeler will be the only two people on stage for “The Mystery of Irma Vep” – opening Thursday at the Forum Theatre – but audiences will see at least eight different characters during this wacky spoof of Victorian melodrama, Shakespeare and Hitchcock with a few vampires, mummies and werewolves mixed in.
And both actors are quick to credit their backstage dressers as vital co-stars who help them quick-change into 48 different get-ups within only seconds to keep up the breakneck pace.
“They are the silent stars of our show,” says Wills, referring to Michael Karraker and Dona Lancaster, who efficiently position, pull on and do up the dozens of pants, coats and dresses as the actors dart backstage for an instant. Then the dressers slap the wigs on the actors to complete the transformation and shove them back in front of the audience to carry on in a new guise.
Adds Wheeler: “They are as important to the show as we are. We rely on them to keep us looking right. The most complex thing has been the backstage choreography.”
That backstage frenzy can be so exciting in itself, says director Rick Bumgardner, that one production in Los Angeles did a booming side business selling tickets to watch from that vantage point rather than out front.
“It is a fascinating technical challenge because it speeds up as it goes,” says Bumgardner, a Wichita State grad who enjoyed a 20-year career in the Kansas City theater scene before returning to his Wichita hometown last year as guest director when the Forum opened. He liked it so much, he stayed.
“At first, it’s merely silly because the changes take place over 30 or 45 seconds and the audience easily sees it. But as the changes come faster and faster, they get caught up in it, wondering how everybody will keep up. When I did the show before in Kansas City, we had one change that happened in only 1.7 seconds,” Bumgardner says.
Written in 1984 by Charles Ludlum for his Greenwich Village-based Ridiculous Theatre Company in New York, this campy treat ran for two years, winning an Obie Award for best ensemble before moving up to larger off-Broadway digs in 1988. By 1991, it had become the most produced play across the country. And in 2003, it achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the longest running play ever in Brazil.
“It’s very funny – everywhere. That’s the point,” Bumgardner says. “I think of it as ‘Full Frontal Lunacy.’ ”
With costumes by Jeffrey Meek and set/lights by Tyler Lessin, the romp revolves around stuffy Lord Edgar, a famous Egyptologist, and flamboyant Lady Enid, his second wife, whom he married after the death of his first wife, Irma Vep. The running joke, says the director, is that Irma Vep – a name playwright Ludlum appropriated from a dreadful old 1915 French movie serial – is an anagram of “vampire.”
Wills plays Lord Edgar as well as three other roles, including the nosy housemaid, Jane Twisden. Wheeler plays Lady Enid as well as three other roles, including a scruffy swineherd named Nicodemus and an ancient Egyptian princess named Pev Amri (surprise, surprise: another anagram of vampire). The over-the-top plot deals with a vampiric attack on Lady Enid that resurrects the ghostly princess, not to mention a werewolf that Lord Edgar suspects of killing Irma.
“It’s really a ridiculous show, but it is also literate,” says Wills, another Wichita State theater grad who came home for a breather this year after carving out a successful Broadway career for two decades, notably in Mel Brooks’ blockbuster “The Producers” as understudy to Tony Award winner Nathan Lane.
“The cross-dressing with men playing women’s roles goes back to Shakespeare, and there are a lot of literary references in the satire,” says Wills, who recently appeared locally in the one-man “Give ’em Hell, Harry” as President Harry S. Truman. “You may not get them all, but when you do recognize them, it makes the show richer.”
Wheeler, who played Lady Enid in a previous production for Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, says that while the quick-change choreography is designed to be precise, the actors have to be prepared for anything.
“Theater is a living thing. It makes you think on your feet. For all the planning, there will always be unforeseen things you suddenly have to deal with. You can’t afford to be afraid. You just go for it,” says Wheeler, another WSU theater grad who is costume and set designer for Cabaret Oldtown when he is not performing. “That’s the challenge. That’s the excitement.”