Many a regional theater has missed the sublime silliness of “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” making it more dudlam than Ludlam. Though Hartford Stage inflates this one-time shoestring show with spiffy and elaborate production values, director Michael Wilson gets the subversive spirit just right, especially in the casting of Jeffery Roberson, aka drag performer Varla Jean Merman, and James Lecesne, another transformative artist and no stranger to playing multiple roles.
Both have a field day in this madcap blend of “Rebecca,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and any number of Hollywood werewolf, vampire and mummy movies. Just as the play has crossed over from downtown dives to mainstream theater, so has Roberson. Supremely suited for the cross-dressing roles, the 6-foot-2 actor (not counting high-haired wigs) spins out a wide range of schtick in the pursuit of gags at any cost. His specialty at girlish victims-turned-mad is in high, hysterical relief here. His Lady Enid devolves from a kind of deranged Bernadette Peters into an even wider-eyed Mrs. Lovett.
Lecesne also doesn’t hold back in his extreme comedic performance, especially in his Jane Twisden, the housekeeper at the House of Mandacrest who comes across as Judith Anderson on crack. Twisden oversees “a family that’s been descending for centuries” and Ludlam’s lunacy gives both actors a crack at all of the nuts.
Wilson directs with the proper speed but also lets the actors find their time to milk an especially ripe gag, sometimes in an exquisitely shameless way. Set designer Jeff Cowie purples it up with a loco-rococo design for Mandacrest and has some hieroglyphic fun when the scene switches to Egypt. Costumer Alejo Vietti likewise goes over the top, especially in the women’s wear. Rui Rita’s shadowy lighting and Joe Pino’s appropriate sound effects and underscoring also add to the play’s atmospheric enjoyment.
Perhaps a little something is lost in the expanses of the Hartford Stage. The tacky, low-tech production values were very much part of the experience when the show originated in Ludlam’s hole-in-the-wall digs. Here stretched across a wide stage and given first-class production values, the sketchy narrative flags in the second act, when the scene shifts to Egypt and the plot not only thickens but threatens to congeal.
But Wilson gooses the fun factor by having the actors move through the audience in their travels to the ancient tomb, and a few local references and ad-libs also keeps things diverting. And when Roberson’s entombed Pev Amri is revealed to be not only anatomically correct but rather bouncy at that, it is a show-stopper.