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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

An Absurdist Mosaic

Theater Reviews

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Perched on an elevated platform, the “mad gothic organist” Jack Forbes Wilson could barely be seen playing the comically florid opening music for Next Act’s The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful. Next Act closes its season with the absurdist comedy featuring two actors playing eight different characters.

The two in question are John McGivern and Christopher Tarjan—talented comic actors playing multiple roles in full costume with the aid of backstage talents Marsha Kuligowski (who designed the costumes), Properties Master Meghan Savagian and others. Having appeared together before in shows like The Odd Couple and Shear Madness, McGivern and Tarjan have developed a chemistry onstage that interfaces beautifully with Charles Ludlam’s whimsically chaotic script.

The Mystery of Irma Vep is a post-modernist mash-up of a story, featuring elements inspired by and blatantly lifted from a number of bizarrely incongruous sources. It’s a crazy, absurdist mosaic patched together from some of the most highly regarded literature. Lines are drawn from Shakespeare, Poe, Joyce and many more. Lines from Macbeth and The Raven are passionately uttered in a play that also features fart humor, sophomoric sexual innuendo, a werewolf, a vampire and a mummy.

Though blatantly ridiculous, Ludlam rendered the story around decidedly real emotions that are handled very seriously onstage by McGivern and Tarjan. On one level, this is a dramatic story that just happens to involve ridiculous costuming, cross-dressing and many, many subtle tongue-in-cheek jokes which slip by so quickly that they seem to be attempting to elude laughter altogether. McGivern and Tarjan occasionally slip into more traditional comic postures, slowing down to emphasize punch lines, occasionally stopping just short of mugging for the audience. These lapses may seem a bit unprofessional in places, but they serve to deftly accentuate the delicious incongruity of the script. Perhaps just a bit more definition between serious delivery of dramatic lines and openly comic moments would serve to amplify the ridiculousness of it all. Minor details aside, this is a fully enjoyable presentation of an absurdist piece. Tarjan and McGivern managed a reassuringly clever moment opening night.

Somewhere in the first act, the sound of a few rather loud sneezes drifted through the Off-Broadway Theatre. Without breaking cadence, rhythm or character, Tarjan punctuated a bit of dialogue directed at McGivern by saying, “gesundheit.” It made for one of the best laughs of the evening. Irma Vep closes May 25.