I’m trying to recall an instance when watching a dude in drag wasn’t funny, and I’m coming up short.
Whether it’s Bugs Bunny donning an outfit to con Elmer Fudd or Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis infiltrating an all-women traveling band, seeing clearly butch men (or cartoon rabbits, I guess) traipse around in ill-fitting women’s clothing and spouting a falsetto voice never fails to get at least a few chuckles out of me.
Which means that APEX Theatre’s latest production, “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” got me smiling on multiple occasions. Just the sight of actors Josh Carpenter and Nate McKellar (who carry the entire show on their shoulders by playing every character themselves) sporting ridiculous voices and even worse fitting dresses is enough to make me titter.
Thankfully, there’s more on offer than just their traipsing around in drag. “Irma Vep” is a fun bit of theatrical absurdity, mixing the aforementioned cross-dressing with werewolves, vampires, mummies, betrayal and plenty of good old-fashioned sight gags.
Lord Edgar (Carpenter) is the wealthy owner the Mandacrest Estate and an Egyptologist. He’s married to Lady Enid (McKellar), though he’s never fully moved on after the death of his previous wife, Irma Vep. He’s surrounded by his housekeeper, Jane (Carpenter) and a groundskeeper, Nicodemous (McKellar), who have their own colorful opinions of Lady Enid. However, when Enid is attacked by a vampire (Carpenter again), Edgar travels to Egypt in search of answers, finding them possibly in the form of a resurrected Egyptian princess (McKellar again).
Sounds absurd, yes? That’s because it is. I don’t think there’s a single second of the show that isn’t played with a wink or for laughs and it works. Most of it does, at least as it feels like the script loses a bit of steam in the final stretch. McKellar and Carpenter do their best keeping things together (especially considering how rapid-fire their costume changes become) and it all still works, just not as tightly as it perhaps should.
Despite that, however, it’s solid work. McKellar and Carpenter fully embrace the silliness of the whole affair, which is essential. If you’re not on the same wavelength as the madness this play eventually becomes, it falls flat. Thankfully, they both seem to fully understand what’s needed here and give it everything they’ve got. It’s a difficult task carrying an entire show between just two actors, much less two actors playing multiple roles and making rapid-fire costume changes.
It should be noted that unless you find dudes dressing in drag for innocent, comedic effect inherently offensive, this is a show that should be suitable for at least young teens on up. Meaning that, if nothing else, I’m happy to see APEX take on a show like this if for no other reason than it broadens their horizons. Since opening, the company has made a priority of taking on and producing material that’s not exactly what most mainstream audiences are looking for in Tyler or East Texas (their Saturday morning “Mother Goose” productions notwithstanding). Not that there’s anything wrong with that. On the contrary, I think it’s great that there’s theatrical material for audiences of all tastes taking root in the area. But on the other hand, it’s nice to see that the folks at APEX are trying to be more than just “the theatre company that does edgy material.”
All of that to say that “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is worth a watch. It’s certainly not thematically challenging, but it’s not aiming to be. It’s good for some laughs and pushed forward by two eager leads. That’s about all one can really ask for when it comes to “dudes in drag comedy.”
“The Mystery of Irma Vep” runs tonight and Saturday at Liberty Hall in downtown Tyler. All performances are at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $20 per person.