THE MONSTER WITHIN PSC's duo, Tom Ford and Steven Strafford.
Mandacrest's groundskeeper, Nicodemus, sympathizes with Jane, the estate's longtime housemaid: "You do the work of three people." The two exchange a meaningful glance. There is indeed much to handle in this manor on the English heath — a haunted, widowed Lord; his yearning new Lady; a remorseful werewolf; and what may or may not be a vampire. But the look that the two actors give each other is rooted in a more meta commiseration: Between the two of them, they're doing the work of every man, woman, or creature in the manor. That is to say that two men do a lot of quick changing in Charles Ludlum's modern camp classic, The Mystery of Irma Vep. Portland Stage Company's excellent, giddy production, directed by Christopher Grabowski, stars Tom Ford (who portrayed some dozens of characters in PSC's superlative I Am My Own Wife) and Steven Strafford.
Playwright Ludlum founded the playful, gender-bending underground "Theater of the Ridiculous" in '60s downtown New York. As his theatrical m.o. had it: "Theater of the Absurd refused to take anything seriously. . . . Ridiculous takes everything seriously." Indeed, the hyper-referential Irma Vep draws on horror movies, cheap Gothic romances, and transvestism, as well as Shakespeare, Poe, and the Brontës; it is a brilliant spoof of and homage to the whole cultural shebang, the "highs" and the "lows" of our theatrical urges.
It is also a hilarious romp, and these two gifted actors pull out all the stops. Ford outrageously fawns, trills, and curtseys as Lady Enid, then re-enters hobbling and leering as the peg-legged Nicodemus. Strafford mopes and gazes wittily as Lord Edgar, and is a particular, deliciously snarky gas as Jane, who, in a long, black wig, is a Gothic-transvestite mash-up of Agnes DiPesto and Iggy Pop.
Ford and Strafford are also so quick to change between their characters that it would be easy to suspend disbelief, and to accept each entrance as that of a whole new actor. But what a shame that would be. Instead, they make a glorious show of reminding us: They adjust wigs, cue each other, break into anachronistic song, and — best of all — break character to indulge in smirks at dirty double entendres and homoeroticism. ("How do you take your meat, miss?" asks Jane of Lady Enid.)
Likewise does the stagecraft love to flaunt its own tricks. Though the sound of rich strings often rises with the action (Greg Carville's luscious design), and though the manor's drawing room is gorgeous and elaborate (Anita Stewart has once again outdone herself), the show also delights in its simplest devices: tin-can footlights; a curtain lowered almost to the stage floor to create the crawl space of a tomb. And when Lord Edgar and his guide Alcazar stride off (in place) across the Egyptian desert, knee-high pyramids on the "horizon" retreat behind them.
PSC's Irma Vep is a virtuoso roasting of show business. When the attractions include a bleeding painting, '70s pop music, a punny virginity joke, and even a little soft-shoe, you have to agree there's no business like it.
Megan Grumbling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.