STOCKBRIDGE -- You never know where an idle conversation might lead.
For actors Bill Bowers and Tom Hewitt, a casual conversation about Charles Ludlam's "The Mystery of Irma Vep" led them back to Berkshire Theatre Group's Stockbridge campus, where they each have performed, and where "Irma Vep" begins previews 8 p.m. Tuesday in the Fitzpatrick Main Stage. Press opening is 8 p.m. June 28. The show runs through July 19.
Written and first performed by Ludlam for his Ridiculous Theatre Company in 1984, "The Mystery of Irma Vep" is a gloriously freewheeling theatrical pastiche involving vampires, werewolves, mummies, apparitions, mysterious appearances and reappearances that shamelessly evokes Daphne DuMaurier, Alfred Hitchcock, the Brontes, Arthur Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, B-movie thrillers and contemporary and Edwardian pulp-fiction. And, oh yes, it is also a love story.
Bowers and Hewitt play all eight of the play's characters -- male and female.
Hewitt, who saw Ludlam's original 1984 production, said in a pre-rehearsal interview at a studio at BTG's Lavan Center, that he's wanted to do the play, although he acknowledged that, at first, when another actor friend first suggested several years ago that the two of them take "Irma Vep" on, Hewitt rejected the idea.
"Too much work," he said laughing.
That was then. Times and thinking do have a way of changing. When Bowers and Hewitt, who know each other well -- they performed together on Broadway in "The Lion King;" they grew up in Missoula, Mont., although they didn't know each other then; and they are neighbors -- got to talking casually about doing something together, "Irma Vep" popped up.
"We thought we might do a reading, informally, in a living room, just to see how it might work," Hewitt said.
What:"The Mystery of irma Vep" by Charles Ludlam. Directed by Aaron Mark
Who: Berkshire Theatre Group
Where: Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 83 E. Main St., Stockbridge
When: Tuesday through July 19; press opening 8 p.m. June 28. Eves.: 8 Mon., Tue., Thu.-Sat.;
7 Wed. Mats.: 2 Sat.
Admission: $42-$62; previews $42
Info: (413) 997-4444; in person at Colonial Theatre 111 South St., Pittsfield, or Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 83 E. Main St., Stockbridge BerkshireTheatreGroup.org
They brought in another friend and colleague, director Aaron Mark.
"I watched them read the play cold, sitting on a couch," Mark said in a news release from BTG, "and it was already funnier and scarier than I thought would be possible at the same time."
"We did the reading in the fall," Hewitt said. "It felt good so Bill called Kate (Maguire, BTG's CEO and artistic director)."
"Next thing you know," Bowers said, "we're opening the season."
"The Mystery of Irma Vep" is set primarily at Mandacrest, a fog-enshrouded estate where the new mistress of the mansion, Lady Enid (Hewitt), is trying to establish herself. She has big skirts to fill. Her husband, Lord Edgar (Bowers), is haunted, literally and figuratively, by the spirit of his first wife, Irma Vep.
"The Mystery of Irma Vep" is a wild tour-de-force for its two actors whom Ludlam sends pell-mell on a dizzying, whirlwind journey that employs rapid-fire costume changes that, at times, are designed to only barely succeed. Ludlam wants audiences to accept and acknowledge the play's audacious theatricality. There's no place for naturalism here.
"It is unapologetically theatrical," Hewitt said, "but we're looking for ways to do this within the sensibility of the story.
"Ludlam wanted to show off. In many ways, I often feel my job is to channel (him)."
"It is a deceptively difficult play to do," Bowers said. "It's really challenging to accomplish. You're trying to live realistically within the melodrama of it."
Ludlam not only throws caution to the winds in terms of "Irma Vep's" style, he tosses out logic in the process.
"He really wasn't so concerned with plot logic, continuity," Hewitt said.
When, at one point, one of the characters stops and says "This doesn't make any sense," "it really doesn't," Hewitt said. "But things happen so quickly that when you first see the play, you don't notice."
"Besides," Bowers said, "it really doesn't matter. It's not supposed to. And, anyway, I think there are many truly frightening things in the play."
At its heart, "Irma Vep" is, Hewitt says, "a little love letter to theater.
"What's marvelous about ‘Irma Vep' is that it can only be a play. It really is meant for the stage. Ludlam (who died in 1987 at the age of 44) loved puppets and magic. He couldn't possibly have worked in any other medium."