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Cal Shakes stages wild, wonderful ‘Irma Vep’

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Danny Scheie, left, and Liam Vincent make comic magic in all of the roles in California Shakespeare Theater’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep.” {Courtesy Kevin Berne)

The weather was clear and balmy for last weekend’s opening of “The Mystery of Irma Vep.” Onstage, though, it was a dark and stormy night – and an irresistibly funny one.

That’s exactly how it should be for Charles Ludlam’s gothic farce, which manages, in just over two hours, to send up every horror cliché ever written. From vampires and werewolves to mummies and ghouls — and let’s not even talk about the gratuitous dulcimers — Jonathan Moscone’s new production takes the audience on a merry ride through all things scary, hairy and just plain cursed.

Moscone, who announced earlier this year that he was leaving his post as Cal Shakes artistic director for a new job at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, clearly wanted to leave ‘em laughing.

He succeeds spectacularly. With an intricate, well-calibrated staging, designs that earn laughs all on their own, and Cal Shakes veterans Danny Scheie and Liam Vincent playing all the roles –- men, women, creatures and the undead — the results couldn’t be more hilarious.

The title character of “Irma Vep,” subtitled “A Penny Dreadful,” is dead when the play begins, although her portrait continues to hang, glowering at the audience, in a prominent place over the fireplace in the English country mansion of Lord Edgar. (Douglas Schmidt’s set is a masterpiece of dark woods, heavy drapes, exotic artifacts and hidden dungeons, enhanced by Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting and sound by Cliff Caruthers.)

Now there’s a new lady in the house – the glamorous, ultra-femme Edna (Scheie) – who has recently married Edgar and is intensely curious about what happened to her predecessor. It’s a mystery that eventually sends Edgar all the way to Egypt and back again.

Scheie and Vincent are a precision team. Scheie’s Edna, gliding across the stage, is a marvel of distinctive vocal delivery; just hearing this actor say “gibbous moon” is worth the price of a ticket. Scheie also excels as the salty servant Nicodemus, the Egyptian guide Alcazar, and a 300-year-old princess.

Vincent, alternating as the aristocratic Edgar and the iron-clad maid Jane Twisden, is equally sharp. Enormously aided by Katherine Roth’s fabulous costumes, they combine movement, timing, wayward accents and lightning-quick changes to sublime comic effect.

As Moscone’s production accelerates to a dizzying pace, Ludlum’s script transcends its Victorian roots to expose the art beneath the artifice. Like the playwright, Moscone is a theater artist steeped in the classics, and his production of “Vep” is the best I’ve seen — a penny dreadful as theatrically rich as it is side-splittingly funny.

REVIEW
The Mystery of Irma Vep
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: Tuesdays through Sundays; closes Sept. 6
Tickets: $20 to $72
Contact: (510) 848-9666, www.calshakes.org

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