BAR HARBOR — The Criterion Theatre is the perfect venue to put on a play about wealthy, entitled folks and their milieu behaving very, very badly. This is the sort of glamorous theater that set would attend, one imagines, in their leisure between back-stabbing events.
If the play in question, Charles Ludlam’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” which was performed there last weekend by two actors playing eight different parts of varying genders and species, tends to be more silly than witty or sophisticated, well so what?
It was still fun seeing Nathanael Lee and Thomas Van Gorder stride, limp, prance, mince, or prowl about the wide Criterion stage in their various roles as Lord and Lady of the manor, tipsy housekeeper, over-sexed groundskeeper, Egyptian mummy, murderous ghost, werewolf and a couple of other creepy characters.
It is no easy thing for a two actors to thoroughly engage an audience for two hours while enacting a ridiculous story, with a plot that tosses in every theatrical and cinematic trope and cliché and vigorously scrambles — some pithy quote of Shakespeare, a bit o’ baleful Bronte, a dash of duMaurier, and a dreary pinch o’ Poe, etc.
While there were times when the play devolved into a ponderous melodrama, for the most part Lee and Van Gorder succeeded in keeping us smiling.
As the handsome, brooding widower, Lord Edgar, Lee does a fine job striding about making plans and proclamations and shooting pistols. He is equally fun, though not nearly as handsome, as Jane, the longtime retainer who can’t abide Enid, the new Lady of the Manor — the former one, Irma Vep, having died a few years past under, what else, mysterious circumstances. Anyway, the resentful Jane is clearly up to something nasty.
As the delicate and rather fey bride, Lady Enid, Van Gorder is almost too adorable in drag to be funny, but he camps it up enough to overcome that little handicap. He is also appropriately over-the-top as the horny and ultimately hairy handyman Nicodemus.
In between these major roles we are introduced to a bunch of other intentionally confusing odd balls and at one hilarious point are treated to a scene in which Nicodemus, a werewolf and Lady Enid — all played by Van Gorder — have a heated encounter with … each other.
In another funny bit a masked intruder’s face is revealed and Van Gorder as Enid cries in relief “Oh, Edgar!” at which an exasperated Lee reminds her/him in a harsh stage whisper that he/she is actually Jane at this juncture, and then tries to kill Enid with a cleaver.
Part of what makes this whole silly thing work is the seriousness with which set designer Ed Dillon and costumer Stephanie Urquhart Dumas took their jobs. The opulent set of the manor was excellent, with its blood-red walls and curtains. The props — the pistols and portraits and mummy sarcophagus — were brilliant. And considering there were more than 30 costume changes Dumas’s outfits were both believable and tough enough to survive what must have been some serious backstage kerfuffle.
Fine sound and lighting effects were handled by Chuck Colbert and someone billed as D.D. Wehrwulf.
The direction by Lee and Zabet NeuCollins was good, but the pace could have been stepped up throughout; there did seem to be a few missed opportunities for inserting more funny bits of business into the works.
It was, however, very clever to have arranged a misty full moon to greet the audience as they left the theater.
“The Mystery of Irma Vep” may have been solved in just the one weekend, but one hopes that these two talented young men will come up with more fun shows at the Criterion or perhaps expand their repertoire and acting company to take on some more serious fare.