Inhabiting an historic church building from the 1920s on the eastern edge of Ventura’s downtown, the Rubicon Theatre Company is opening its 14th season with Charles Ludlam’s popular farce The Mystery of Irma Vep.
Two actors create eight caricatures spoofing Victorian melodrama, Gothic romance and a host of classic horror films. Set in the moors of England, the Mandacrest Estate is the home of Lord Edgar and Lady Enid, who experience a host of odd events surrounding the mystery of Edgar’s late wife Irma Vep — the name being an anagram for…well, figure it out.
This production is the dream child of stars Joseph Fuqua and Jamie Torcellini along with director Jenny Sullivan, all members of the Rubicon’s inner circle of artists. Sullivan traces the trio’s journey toward this moment.
“Joe played Hamlet for me and Jamie was the Grave Digger and Rosencrantz ““ or was it Guildenstern? They started talking about the idea of doing Irma Vep. They are both fabulously funny. I had seen the play in LA and loved it. So we just started telling anybody who’d listen to us that we wanted to do it. The Rubicon was very interested. Then one day the Ensemble Theatre in Santa Barbara asked if I would do it.” Sullivan, a regular director for both theaters, brokered a deal for associated productions. “It’s not actually a co-production, but we ended up doing it in Santa Barbara first [last December], in collaboration with the Rubicon.”
Though the principal production team remains the same at the Rubicon, this second version benefits from both hindsight and new insights. Sullivan continues, “In this production it has grown a lot. It’s a difficult play to figure out in the first place, but the actors and design team have gone the next step further in this production. The actors and I have had a chance to dissect the play even more; now we’re really luxuriating in the story. Also the Rubicon is a bigger space, and the set of Mandacrest is housed beautifully here like it was made for this theater. So I have been telling the actors to just think of the whole theater as the Mandacrest estate.”
As much as she loves the performances and the set design, it is the sound design by David Beaudry that excites her senses the most. “There are references to Gaslight and Rebecca and Wuthering Heights. We had done a whole soundscape of music from old movies of suspense, horror and high drama. But because so many of those films are so old, we’ve added more current references that are recognizable. I won’t tell you all of them because you have to come see it and hear this incredible sound design, but one is the theme from Jaws, which is really fun.”
Jenny Sullivan is the Rubicon’s only “Artistic Associate,” a ceremonious title awarded her by the Rubicon’s founders James O’Neil and Karyl Lynn Burns because of the director’s contributions to the theater through its 14-year history. O’Neil says he can’t imagine the company without her presence. “Karyl Lynn and I knew Jenny in Santa Barbara in the ’80s and ’90s. In our first season we did a production of Romeo and Juliet which we took to schools. We also ended up doing it in an Italianate courtyard restaurant in Ventura as a fundraiser. Jenny came and brought Stephanie Zimbalist — a great friend of hers. They loved the show and we got to know them. I thought Stephanie would be perfect for The Rainmaker. We did it a year and a half later with Jenny directing it. It was just such a perfect connection there.”
Sullivan also recalls that fundraiser, which began her habit of happily working at the Rubicon, where she can combine excellence in the art with the chance to work with her best friends. “I took Stephanie to the benefit because she’s always taking me to great Hollywood gatherings. We got here and the first thing she did was donate a load of money, bidding in a silent auction. She met everybody and they came up with the idea of doing The Rainmaker. Later I introduced them all to Joseph Fuqua, who I had directed in LA, and he has since done some 26 shows at the Rubicon and directs in the kids program. So I have brought a lot of people into the organization ““ now they have their own relationships.” Among the A-list actors she has brought into the company is another close friend, Linda Purl. Sullivan directed her Regina in the Rubicon’s The Little Foxes in 2000 (which also featured Burns and Fuqua).
O’Neil has no qualms about crediting Sullivan with much of the theater’s growth. “Her dad was Barry Sullivan, so she grew up in that world and knew so many people in Hollywood and she began to introduce us to a lot of them. Through Jenny we ended up doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Joe Spano. So much started with Jenny — she has been so instrumental in bringing wonderful actors and even designers and people we didn’t know.”
For her part, Sullivan refuses to take so much credit. “Jim and Karyl Lynn make all the artistic choices. We all have the opportunity to bring things to the table. I have always wanted to do Virginia Woolf. They made that happen. It was thrilling directing Joe as George and Karyl Lynn as Martha. It was terrifying and exciting. Joe is a great guy and a genius actor. I was really lucky to get to work with him. At the Rubicon I get to work with fabulous new people and a lot of old friends. I did three plays with [the late] Harold Gould and feel so blessed to have that friendship and working relationship with him. He was a magnificent person I loved him dearly. People always ask what plays I want to direct, but the first thing I think about is who I want to work with ““ then we decide on the play.”
While it is the chance to work with choice colleagues that brings such high-profile actors and directors to the Rubicon, there are also some geographical benefits in Ventura. As she speaks from the oceanside hotel where Rubicon artists often stay, Sullivan laughs, “Well, number one, I am sitting here looking at the ocean. It is close to LA and that makes it easier for us to get people to come see the work.”
O’Neil agrees and adds, “We are close to LA but far enough that people consider it a getaway ““ but not so far that they can’t stay in touch. It is difficult for people who make a living in LA to go away for an extended period to do theater in Chicago or Denver or Seattle. Once you make that commitment, you are done and you can’t do anything else. I hope artists would say they appreciate our commitment to quality. Also we always have an eye toward putting artists in roles and positions where they can succeed. People don’t really talk about that specifically, but I think they know it underneath. They feel taken care of. They have a great time and feel like they were in something worthwhile.”
The personal ties and professional respect among the parties at the Rubicon also allows artists to pursue projects deeply important to their lives. Sullivan was given the opportunity to work on a play she had been writing about her family that continues to grow in her artistic soul. She recounts her story:
“A year after my dad died, I found a journal he began in the 1940s. The cover said J for J. This is the title of the play I have written. This “˜Journal for Johnny’ included letters to his son, my brother John. As a few years went by, it started becoming clear there was something wrong with my brother — he was mentally retarded. He lived for many years at home, then they put him in a developmental system in California that is a really great one. After my parents died, I moved him into a group home situation, which turned out to be an incredible thing for him. My brother and I were extremely close. He was very funny in his own idiosyncrasies. I started to write a play based on the journal. Really it was about my dad and my brother and me. It is about teaching me how to take care of my brother, then coming to terms with my brother and my dad.
“We did two years of readings around the country. I sent it to John Ritter who was a dear old, old friend of mine — we met in the early ’70s and we had acted together a lot. I needed someone with a great sense of humor to play my brother. John Ritter flipped for it. He spent a lot of time with my brother. Ultimately the Rubicon produced the world premiere of it [in 2001]. I acted in it and someone else directed it. John Ritter and I were working on a screenplay because he really wanted to do a film of it. He had just started his [TV] series [8 Simple Rules]. Then, a year into that, he died.
“The play is kind of languishing. It has gotten a bit more difficult because my brother passed away a year ago. He and John Ritter had a great bond between them. It was a big deal and I am determined to get back to it.” And she knows her Rubicon friends and colleagues will be there for her when she does.
The Mystery of Irma Vep, Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E Main St., Ventura. Wed 2 and 7 p.m., Thur and Fri, 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun, 2 p.m. Through Nov. 6. Tickets: $25 – $54. 805-667-2900. www.rubicontheatre.org.
***All The Mystery of Irma Vep production photos by David Bozeman