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Cal Shakes 'Mystery of Irma Vep' is a Zany goodbye to Jonathan Moscone

"Mystery of Irma Vep"

is a hilarious mix of camp, and Drag Queen bliss

Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone final event for his Cal Shakes 15 splendid years is a wild silly romp. Moscone turned the Bruns Amphitheatre around during his tenure, creating one of the most dynamic theatre companies in the Bay Area. He leaves his loyal subscribes laughing to one fun night of drag gender bending ghost, ghouls and melodrama. Charles Ludlam’s THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP written in 1984 for two actors is hilarious camp, and the perfect Moscone swansong. Ludlam founded the Ridiculous Theatre Company in New York, and this work keeps his cross-dressing themes alive and funny.

This classic costume quick change roller coaster could only be accomplished by two brilliant comic actors who can pull off all seven characters. The bay area's best Danny Scheie and Liam Vincent hold down the house of mystery and keep this show fast and laughable. Danny has played the part in the past at the Berk Rep and out of town, and its one of his best roles. Costume designer Katherine Roth, opened her best closet for this show and these two actors. Dazzling gowns and wraps, monster wolf arms and chaps, a wonderful assortment of color, cleavage, and camp and both Vincent and Scheie pull it off as they showcase their versatility.

The main Diva “Irma Vep” or “A Penny Dreadful” is a dead memory as the story begins, but her horrid haunted portrait hangs in the English manor of Lord Edgar. The main house designed by the talented Douglas Schmidt includes plenty of doors and windows to enter and exit, and gothic statues that seem to come to life. Scheie is perfect as the eccentric Lady Enid scampering in circles on stage to her be loved Load Edgar, played with perfect comic timing by Vincent. The zany wicked housemaid Jane Twisden also in the talented hands of Vincent who makes a perfect Jayne Lynch drag queen. In a flash Scheie transforms into the old handyman Nicholas Underwood who later morphs into a wolfman and more. Scheie best camp is a flashy Egyptian princess that appears in the second act disco dance entrance, all very funny.

Moscone sends his two talented actors on the perfect ride that would be any actors dream. They warp into seven characters as easy as a turn with the talented dressers backstage. There is room in the script for improv when all doesn’t work so smoothly as Vincent's many wigs slides off, he goes off script and it's hilarious. I would guess this would be a nightly shtick when hats and gowns don’t always make the mark. The mystery of Irma’s death continues just over two hours and yes it is ridiculous. Moscone also adds the costume changes to the core of the second act as two dressers switch Edgar to Jane on stage during a scene change, as Vincent hums a tune. Cliff Caruthers sound design is a hit from the moment the house fades to black and the storm bolts the Orinda Bruns Amphitheater. Caruthers sounds are a tour de force of wacky screams, storms, monsters and the perfect tune for the dancing Egyptian Princess. Alex Nichols keeps the moon over looking the manor in perfect glow for both acts. His lighting design is deep with storms and hidden caverns of light from the windows and a fun fireplace.

The subtext and dreadful word play brings everything from Dickens to Poe and Hitchcock in Ludlam's wacky tale. The best part of this evening is the comic timing and pleasure to watch the two leads work with this fun script. Scheie and Vincent are masters of comedy and improv, their body language, verbiage and dialect make this a great evening of slapstick, monsters, and camp. Jonathan Moscone will be missed at the Orinda site, he moves to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in the newly created position of chief of civic engagement. As IRMA VEP opened Moscone moved across the bay, only to know that his new home will be transformed by his presents soon enough.

Moscone joined his cast for the standing ovation from the sold out house at opening night. The applause were thick not only for this fun show but for Mr. Moscone final bow at Cal Shakes. IRMA VEP plays through September 6th, and it is a sure bet for a fun evening in the Orinda hills


By Charles Ludlam,

Presented by California Shakespeare Theater

Directed by Jonathan Moscone

featuring Danny Scheie and Laim Vincent

Aug 12 - Sept. 6

Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda

Running time: 2 hours,

10 minutes, one intermission

Tickets: $20-$72;


Photos by Jay Yamada.

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