Nathanael Lee, front, and Thomas Van Gorder rehearse their many roles for the zany thriller “The Mystery of Irma Vep," to be performed at the Criterion Theatre the weekend of Oct.11. PHOTO COURTESY OF ESTEFANY PEREZ

‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’ Lee, Van Gorder perform two-man ‘penny dreadful’

BAR HARBOR — And now for something completely different — and potentially, great fun.

Nathanael Lee and fellow Mount Desert Island High School graduate Thomas Van Gorder are launching a two-man comedy performance with Charles Ludlum’s, zany thriller “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” at the Criterion Theatre, Oct.11-13.

The play is described as a “penny dreadful” after the serial Gothic novels popular in the Victorian era. This one is a spoof on the dark and brooding stage and film genres, most notably, “Wuthering Heights” and “Rebecca.”

In fact, the basic plot borrows more than a little from the Daphne duMaurier classic, with the new wife of widowed Lord Edgar of the elegant estate Mandacrest contending with a troublesome housekeeper and disturbing memories of her husband’s first wife. Ludlum has tossed in a bunch of other unpleasant characters (and creatures) to complicate matters further. The result should be both horrible and hilarious.

Both Van Gorder and Lee, who is now the film curator for the Criterion, are veterans of the high school’s excellent drama and show choir programs, Acadia Community Theater productions and other local musical and theatrical entities. The two graduated from MDIHS in 2008 and were acquainted but somehow managed never to appear on the Higgins-Demas stage together.

After graduation Van Gorder went off to Boston to study engineering, but returned a few years ago to earn money building houses to complete his degree. Since then he has been doing star turns in local productions, most recently ACTs “Freaky Friday.”

Lee studied theater and film at Rhode Island College, performing in numerous college and regional theater productions.

“Then I came home for a visit, got involved in a production of Agatha Christie’s “Then There Were None” [at The Grand], remembered how much I love this place, got a job at the Criterion and, well, here I am.”

Lee and Van Gorder finally had their first stage performance together at the Criterion in last year’s spoof of the Hitchcock thriller “39 Steps,” which had five actors playing about 30 roles.

“We had such fun doing that and got such a positive response, I’ve been wanting to do something like it again,” said Lee.

“When I first read ‘Irma Vep,’ last spring, I thought it was hilarious and immediately wanted to do it.”

While “39 Steps” divvied up the roles between five actors, “Irma Vep” only allows for two actors of the same sex, to take on eight different male and female roles.

Lee says he was pretty sure who he wanted to cast in the other half of the roles.

“39 Steps” was extremely physically demanding, admits Van Gorder,

“But I guess I have a knack for it,” he said. “So, when Nathanael approached me about doing Irma Vep and I read the script, I signed on wholeheartedly.”

Criterion Executive Director Amy Roeder quickly agreed to host the production, but the actors’ respective jobs and busy summer lives and the theater’s crammed schedule of films and live performances made it necessary to wait until fall before they could start rehearsing together, and add it to the theater’s schedule.

Lee and Van Gorder did not wait to learn their lines, however, so when they finally did begin rehearsals last month, both were off book so they could concentrate on the direction, which they share with considerable help from mutual friend Zabet NeuCollins.

They also assembled a production team for sound and lighting, props, sets and costumes.

Stephanie Urquart Dumas has been tasked with assembling and or creating costumes for characters that include lords and ladies, laborers, ghosts, vampires, werewolves and the mummy of an Egyptian princess. The outfits have to be easy to take on and off for the 35 lightning-fast costume and character changes during the course of the play.

Van Gorder said he’s enjoyed being with old friends and making new ones, and has “been able to learn something new from everyone involved.”

Lee said every rehearsal brings something new to their performance.

“We’re constantly cracking each other up with some new bit of business one of us thinks up.”

Asked if he might parlay his two Criterion productions into an actual Criterion-based acting company, Lee shrugs and says, “Well, I can’t say I haven’t thought of it.”

Performances of “The Mystery of Irma Vepp” are planned for Friday, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 12 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Sunday Oct. 13 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $16 for students and seniors. Visit or call 288-0829.

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.
Nan Lincoln

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