Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle: Masquers’ MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP-- Scarpelli & Budinger’s Laugh Riot!

By John A. McMullen II
Wednesday September 07, 2011 - 09:15:00 AM
Jane the housekeeper (Peter Budinger, left) spurns the lecherous swineherd Nicodemus (DC Scarpelli, right).
Jerry Telfer
Jane the housekeeper (Peter Budinger, left) spurns the lecherous swineherd Nicodemus (DC Scarpelli, right).

The team of Scarpelli & Budinger have done right by the late Charles Ludlam and taken Pt. Richmond’s Masquers Playhouse up a notch in their campy 


Eight characters—male and female— are all played by D. C. Scarpelli and Peter Budinger. They met at Yale 20 years ago, and these life-partners act together like they knew each other in a former life. 

IRMA VEP is a Victorian melodrama based on a “penny dreadful”—lurid 19th century British fiction serialized stories, each story costing a penny. 

It’s got something for every culture-vulture: werewolves, mummies, portraits of the late lady of the house and predecessor of our heroine, allusions to gay-adored cinematic archetypes from “Rebecca” to “GWTW”—hell, even Anne Baxter in “The Ten Commandments” has a moment in this super-parody. 

It’s peppered with quotes from Shakespeare to Wilde, and it’s full of eye-rolling Freudian puns like, “Oh, the heartbreak of falling in love with an Egyptologist only to find out he’s hung up on his mummy!” 

The costumes are the third player. 

The design and execution of colorful, florid gowns and proper gentlemen’s apparel by Tammara Plankers and Jacki Medernach dazzle the eye and help the actors and audience enter a world of Victoriana.  

On top of which, the costumes are designed for fifteen-second presto-change-o’s which is a big “hook” of the piece. The two actors hit their marks fully dressed every time (well, maybe once a pant showed under a gown). 

Accolades to dressers Anne Collins and Steph Peek, who must be working frenziedly backstage to make it happen. 

D. C. Scarpelli plays the over-the-top characters of the bent-over, one-legged stableman, with contorted mouth a la Frankenstein’s Igor and a spot-on Cockney; Lady Enid, striking that Gloria Swanson with that side-bend, fending off the world gesture and a British Received falsetto; but particularly shines as the reconstituted mummy /sexy Pharoah-ess who speaks and sings in faux-Egyptian. Scarpelli sports a shaved head, and with his mutable physiognomy, classic features, command of various dialects, and convincing drag, he knocks it out of the park.  

Movie-star handsome Peter Budinger plays the stolid housekeeper, the Lord of the Manor, the “Rebecca” character, and an Intruder. Budinger is the salt to Scarpelli’s pepper. The pair play this genre like they invented it, and I hear from backstage talk that they are just a dream to work with. 

John Hull has designed a fully believable manor house drawing-room with stone walls and hearth, and uses the stage to its fullest with inner-chambers, sliding doors, a balcony with moonlight over the moor, and the unearthed Egyptian tomb and sarcophagus. It’s classic, campy and its design eases the quick entrances.  

However, the production is in desperate need of a more substantial lighting design to support the effort. Any kid who ever fashioned a haunted house knows that an essential ingredient is the spooky lighting. Victorian melodrama cries out “footlights” which have a phantasmagoric effect of their own, and the heightening of the tension by increasing the “scary” lighting only brings harder laughter---think “Abbot and Costello meet the Wolfman.” The performance seemed like a tech run-through without the lighting; there wasn’t even the light for the supposedly operational fireplace or for the eternal flame on the looming portrait over the mantle. The one ingenious moment of lighting with gobos (little tin cut-outs attached to the front of lights that throw a design pattern on the floor or wall) was in the entrances to the tomb.  

And there are amateur errors which I carp about every time I go to community theatre: full-minute set changes with nothing happening, men with headphones rearranging props in a near black-out; little things that burst the bubble of belief.  

But it’s worth the Andrew Jackson to take it in and watch these virtuosi run a marathon like it’s a 100- yard dash. 

Following “Musical of Musicals, this is the second hit in a row for Masquers who are now on a roll after a couple of critical disappointments.  

THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP by Charles Ludlam  

Through October 1, 2011.  

Masquers Playhouse  

105 Park Place, 

Point Richmond, CA 94801-3922 

Info/tickets: 510-232-4031  

Directed by Robert Love, Set by John Hull, Costumes by Tammara Plankers and Jacki Medernach, Lighting by Renee Echavez, Properties by Robert Taylor, Production Management by Kyle Johnson, Stage Management by Joe Torres. Dressers: Anne Collins and Steph Peek.