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'Irma Vep' is fittingly loopy

March 27, 2009|David C. Nichols; David Ng; F. Kathleen Foley

"The Mystery of Irma Vep" perches high atop the overflowing trunk of Ridiculous Theatrical Company tomfoolery left behind by the late, great Charles Ludlam. When wryly handled, this 1984 travesty of Gothic romanticism and monster-movie tropes is a farcical tour de force.

Make that "tours de force" -- what distinguishes "Irma Vep" is its quick-change, thrown-voice assumption of all the roles by two actors. In the daft Ark Theatre Company revival, director Andrew Crusse unleashes loopy players Jim Hanna and Steven Shields to largely hilarious effect.

Subtitled "A Penny Dreadful," the narrative slinks around Mandacrest, where Daphne du Maurier and the Brontes would feel right at home. The master is a devoted Egyptologist, newly remarried after the death of his first wife -- the titular, anagrammatical Irma Vep, whose crazed portrait practically leaps out from designer Shelley Delayne's faux-grim setting.

Typical of Ludlam, references run amok, with "Rebecca," "Wuthering Heights" and Universal horror films merely the most obvious. Though missing the last degree of dry-ice lunacy -- the autoharp duet is absent, ditto the crypt-descent kneeling walk -- Crusse's staging lands its campy gist, aided by Jeff Davis' lighting, Dee Sudik's costumes and Corwin Evans' sound.

No duo will fully supplant originators Ludlam and Everett Quinton, whose airborne double act remains among this observer's most treasured theatrical memories. Even so, Hanna and Shields have a tandem field day, their aplomb approaching Tony Abatemarco and John Fleck in the 1998 Tiffany Theatre mounting, no mean feat.

Therefore, when Shields plays housekeeper Jane Twisden like "Young Frankenstein's" Frau Blucher, it blurs her Mrs. Danvers function yet tickles against Hanna's incongruously fluttering bride. Shields' shifts to priggish Lord Edgar similarly spark Hanna's one-legged Nicodemus, less Igor than "The Simpsons' " Groundskeeper Willie and riotous in a lycanthropic face-off with himself as Lady Enid. Here, as elsewhere, "Irma Vep" vaults from the wildly ridiculous to the dizzily sublime.

-- David C. Nichols

"The Mystery of Irma Vep," Upstairs at the Hayworth, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 4. $20-$22. (323) 969-1707. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

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Wife wanted: perfection a must

City Garage's production of "The School for Wives" by Moliere is an adroit and intelligently directed revival whose porcelain-like delicacy is cracked somewhat by performances that try too hard to be funny.

Arnolphe (Bo Roberts) is a middle-aged nobleman who desires nothing more than the perfect wife. He believes that such a lady can be trained and has embarked on an experiment to mold the young Agnes (Jessica Madison) into his ideal partner.

But his plans go awry when he discovers that Agnes is in love with Horace (Dave Mack), a handsome young suitor. Determined not to be cuckolded, Arnolphe hatches a plot to deceive Horace and turn the virginal Agnes against him.

The role of Arnolphe is an extremely difficult one, filled with complicated monologues and whiplash asides to the audiences. Roberts isn't quite up to the task of making the character seem both charming and loathsome. The actor strains to find levity in his scenes but mostly ends up looking exhausted.

Frederique Michel directs with a combination of dry wit and precision, though you wish she could have reined in some of the forced comedy. (Michel penned the adaptation with Charles Duncombe.) In the roles of Arnolphe's dimwitted servants, Cynthia Mance and Ken Rudnicki work hard at slapstick with little payoff.

By contrast, Mack and Madison in the roles of the young lovers seldom try to be funny and deliver some of the most endearingly comical moments of the evening.

-- David Ng

"The School for Wives," City Garage, 1340 1/2 4th St. (alley), Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Saturdays; 5:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 31. $20. (310) 319-9939. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

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Being shut out of DNA discovery

Anna Ziegler's "Photograph 51," now in its West Coast premiere at the Fountain, is one of those factually based scientific-suspense stories (Paul Mullin's "Louis Slotin Sonata" and Hugh Whitemore's "Breaking the Code" come to mind) that show the human toll behind the world-changing scientific discovery.

Here, that discovery is the structure of DNA, the "secret of life" sussed out in the early 1950s by Nobel winners James Watson and Francis Crick.

Ziegler's protagonist, Rosalind Franklin, played with affectless aloofness by Aria Alpert, was a British physicist whose X-ray image of DNA's double helix form -- the photograph of the title -- was "borrowed" by Crick and Watson in their own research.

Franklin died unaware of the part she had played in solving the puzzle. Crick and Watson later shared credit with Franklin, but because the Nobel is not awarded posthumously, she was not included in the prize -- which adds a tragic dimension to her story.

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