Solving a Mystery
Two actors take on a logistical challenge for Irma Vep.
It’s late afternoon on a recent Friday at Court Theatre on the University of Chicago campus, and actors Erik Hellman and Chris Sullivan are experiencing downtime. The design team and crew of The Mystery of Irma Vep are deep in the exacting tech rehearsal known as cue-to-cue, meaning that for today the actors are little more than props. They haltingly walk through the play’s opening lines a dozen times or more, while lighting and sound operators fiddle with levels. When they’re asked to hold for long adjustments, Sullivan, an imposing figure in a long dark coat with a pitchfork by his side, sits checking his iPhone. The slighter Hellman, bedecked in a frilly maid’s outfit and curly wig, mimes riding his broom across the stage.
It’s tedious, perhaps, but vital, particularly for this production. “I can’t think of any show I’ve done that’s this technical, in a way that affects the actor this much,” Hellman says later, sitting in a U. of C. courtyard. “I’ve got a list this long of things I want to figure out today.” Sullivan agrees: “The costume changes, the traveling of props, that’s like 75 percent of the show.”
The two actors play a total of eight roles, men and women, in Charles Ludlam’s penny-dreadful pastiche of Hammer horror flicks and Rebecca -style gaslight thrillers. The production’s success hinges on the cast’s dexterity with quick changes—of costume, character and gender. The New York Times review of the original Off-Off Broadway production in 1984, which starred Ludlam and his partner, Everett Quinton, said that “each actor often barely misses meeting himself on stage, although sometimes offstage voices collide.”
Ludlam brought the 19th-century actor-manager model into the 20th, producing, directing and often starring in his own avant-garde, gender-bending works before dying of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987. Like many of his plays, Irma Vep—a posthumous mainstream success, the most produced play in the U.S. in 1991—is a quilt of references: scenes lifted from movies, literary references, Bible verses, paraphrased Shakespeare.
“It’s trope-based, it’s not plot-based,” Hellman says. “Ludlam believed playwrights needed to get a little more Cubist, like Picasso, or how Ulysses works.”
Hellman, a Denver native and Northwestern grad, played good son Chris in TimeLine’s recent revival of All My Sons. California-born Sullivan—known as “Sully”—arrived in Chicago with the long-running solo play Defending the Caveman at the Lakeshore Theater (“I hadn’t planned on staying, but I loved the city so much that when the show ended [in 2007] I shipped all my stuff from California”); he played the title role in Irma Vep director Sean Graney’s production of The Hairy Ape for last winter’s Eugene O’Neill festival.
The two rising actors have an easy rapport that belies the fact they’ve worked together just once before, in Graney’s 2008 production of Edward II at Chicago Shakespeare Theater; Hellman recently mentioned on Court’s blog that the two carpool from the North Side every day. In the U. of C. courtyard, Hellman notes he’ll next play Romeo at Indiana Repertory Theatre; Sullivan responds with surprise: “You said you were going to be in Romeo and Juliet, you didn’t say you were Romeo! That’s awesome, man.” “Eh, I’m a little old to play it,” Hellman replies.
“I’m getting married in June,” Sullivan says. “So that’s my next role.” Hellman’s retort: “Beats the hell out of Romeo.”
The Mystery of Irma Vep is in previews, opening Saturday 21.