The Halloween season is known for being scary, and there’s no shortage of content to terrify you accordingly — but if you’d rather wet your pants from laughter instead of fear, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” at Omaha Community Playhouse makes for a perfect night out.
“The Mystery of Irma Vep,” directed by OCP favorite Jim McKain from a legendary script from Charles Ludlam, follows the inhabitants of Mandacrest Estate (which one can deduce is located in the moors of England). Lord Edgar (Anna Perilo) and Lady Enid (Ben Beck) have recently married, but are unable to find comfort while in the shadow of Edgar’s first and now deceased wife, Irma. Spooky. They are not alone — Jane Twisden (Anna Perilo), the maid, and Nicodemus Underwood (Ben Beck), a swineherd, occupy the estate as well, although there never seem to be more than two characters in the room at any one time (you’ll never guess why).
It would be a disservice to readers and theatergoers everywhere to reveal too much more of the plot, but it involves references to tropes of murder, monsters and more besides, and directly spoofs the work of Jane Austin, Alfred Hitchcock, Edgar Allen Poe and again, more besides. It is so packed with references and easter eggs that the eyes and ears would bleed if not for the desire to see or hear one more joke.
“Irma Vep” is a play that operates best on unbridled maximization, a fact that McKain’s OCP production confirms. Every inch of the small stage is used, and when it’s not enough, the entire room becomes the set. Two actors fill the shoes of a much larger cast of characters, and just when you think they have nowhere left to go, they start bouncing off of the audience, before proving that they never needed us in the first place. Practically every other sentence is a punchline, and references fill in the rest of the script. Some jokes are delivered at a breakneck pace, while others are allowed to play out — in the production’s biggest, and perhaps only flaw, a few jokes linger longer than they should. Keeping a joke going past the audience’s expectations is a nice way of keeping things interesting, but there comes a point where a drawn out punchline needs to be taken off of life support so that the show can continue in its otherwise perfect pacing.
You can write a perfect joke, yet it won’t earn a single laugh if it isn’t told properly — but Beck and Perilo’s line delivery delivers. Every joke is sold by their commitment to each punchline, and the production couldn’t work without them. Although dramatic chops are hardly required, being able to pull off multiple characters over the course of one play, each with different accents, mannerisms and styles of comedy, necessitates great skill. Perilo and Beck play off of the script, each other and even the audience with great success. The particular brand of comedy that’s been created by the writing, the direction and the actors makes it very hard to tell where rehearsed material ends and improvisation begins, but I would be very surprised if Beck and Perilo didn’t come up with at least a few jokes on the fly.
For as necessary and wonderful as its actors may be, the script is the true power behind “Irma Vep.” It’s a comedic powerhouse that has been a classic for decades, and has even been produced by OCP before with the involvement of Omaha theatre legends. Irreverent and crass, but also self-aware, referential and progressively meta as it goes along, its script is truly a force of its own.
Other features of the show operate mostly in aid of the script and actors, but are commendable on their own. The set is constrained to the smaller of OCP’s two theaters, but it overcomes its compactness through many features and props both prominent and subtle. Doors, mist, instruments, a fireplace, a fake leg and a portrait that I’ll describe as “dynamic” really enrich the production from the periphery, while there’s space for the actors on, behind, around and even inside the stage. The lighting is also worth noting, used for over-the-top effects that fit perfectly with the show’s atmosphere, and is even a key component in a few of the funnier moments.
“The Mystery of Irma Vep” is done superbly by the Omaha Community Playhouse. In a play that demands commitment, this production dives right into everything it can be. While other OCP productions that I’ve seen have struck much more of a balance between comedy and drama, this one leans entirely into the laughs. Nothing — not even the most dramatic of situations — is sacred. Between its many fourth-wall-breaking moments and pervasive absurdity, “Irma Vep” never asks you to suspend your disbelief, but it does invite you to a great time at the theatre, and the best experience I’ve had yet at the Omaha Community Playhouse.