Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Cross-dressing. Werewolves. Class conflict. Egyptology. Academic rivalry. Vampires. All this and more can be seen this weekend at The Mystery of Irma Vep.
Inspired by Rebecca and Wuthering Heights, The Mystery of Irma Vep tells the story of Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Patrick Ross ‘15) and his new wife, Enid (Sasha Rojavin ‘15). Edgar’s first wife, the titular Irma, died tragically and he has yet to put her behind him. After a series of mysterious incidents on the estate – including an attack on Enid – Edgar goes to Egypt in search of answers.
Everything about Irma Vep is absurd. Ross and Rojavin play every role, rapidly changing costumes and accents backstage. Over the course of the show, Ross plays a Scottish maid, an English Lord, and a vampire; Rojavin plays a Scottish groundskeeper, an English lady, a tomb robber, and an Egyptian princess. The show is very self reflexive, and each production inserts a plethora of pop culture references.
Rojavin and Ross first read Irma Vep in their Fall 2012 Performance Theory and Practice course, but neither were particularly impressed. “I remember skipping through it because I didn’t think it was funny,” says Rojavin. But when they were reading the play in class, it came alive. Rojavin says he “remembers [they] sort of locked eyes,” and they have been attempting to put on the play ever since. When the pair approached Anna Russell ‘14 to direct, she said she “simply couldn’t say no.”
Unfortunately, neither Drama Board or the Swarthmore Theater department could fund the show. Drama Board has a “free and fair” audition policy, but, as Ross said, “the first thing [the show] had was the cast.” Ross attempted to put on the show as his acting thesis within the theater department, but that plan also fell through.
Like many desperate artists before them, Ross and Rojavin turned to Kickstarter. Their goal was to raise $500 and they managed to close the campaign with $575. Most of the money came from family and friends, but there were three “mystery donors” who had no connection to the actors or Swarthmore. Two will be attending the show, but the last did not respond when contacted.
A year and a half in the making, the passion the team has for Irma Vep is obvious on stage. The set is not lavish, and the props and costumes have been gathered from “a haphazard assortment of unlikely places,” according to Russell. That said, it is a genuinely enjoyable show.
Although it starts strong, the play picks up the pace partway through its first act, when a supernatural figure (a vampire? werewolf?) kidnaps Lady Enid. Here the actors are allowed to really show off their quick changes, having off-stage conversations with themselves and changing rapidly during the wild night.
This scene also sets the tone for the rest of the show, which is at its best when its actors are visibly having fun. Ross and Rojavin give strong performances throughout, but Irma Vep is a marathon. The actors come to life at certain moments: Ross hamming it up as Edgar attempts to say the word “vampire,” or Rojavin sprinting across the room after transforming into a werewolf.
It’s hard to discuss specifics of the show’s plot, because the story is secondary to Irma Vep. What really matters is that the two actors have chemistry on stage. Ross and Rojavin more than accomplish this task, having established a relationship over three years of work together. Even if romance and werewolves aren’t your cup of tea, it’s a joy just watching them play together.