Diversionary brings back queer camp horror classic ‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’

Luke Harvey Jacobs, left, and Bryan Banville in Diversionary Theatre's "The Mystery of Irma Vep."
Luke Harvey Jacobs, left, as Lady Enid, and Bryan Banville as Lord Edgar in Diversionary Theatre’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”
(Courtesy of Simpatika)

San Diego actors Luke Harvey Jacobs and Bryan Banville will play eight characters and perform 35 backstage costume changes in the Charles Ludlam comedy


Twenty years ago this month, San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre produced Charles Ludlam’s campy, queer gothic horror comedy “The Mystery of Irma Vep.” This week, it returns.

Inspired by classic B-movies of the 1940s and ‘50s — like “Rebecca” and “The Mummy’s Curse” — “Irma Vep” features two actors playing eight characters with the help of 35 fast-paced costume changes. Set at a spooky English manor on the moors, it’s the story of Lady Enid, the second wife of Egyptologist Lord Edgar, and the mysterious death of his first wife, Irma Vep. Other characters in the story are some of the manor’s staff, a werewolf and a vampire.

Ludlam, who passed away in 1987, and his longtime companion Everett Quinton originated all the roles in the play’s 1984 debut. For this production at Diversionary, the roles will be played by longtime San Diego actors Luke Harvey Jacobs and Bryan Banville.

Bryan Banville, left, and Luke Harvey Jacobs rehearse Diversionary Theatre's "The Mystery of Irma Vep."
Bryan Banville, left, and Luke Harvey Jacobs rehearse a scene for Diversionary Theatre’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”
(Courtesy of Peggy Ryan)

Jacobs, a San Diego native who grew up in El Cajon, stars as Lady Enid, the manor’s groundskeeper Nicodemus and a few other characters. He has been performing onstage in musicals since age 9 and has also worked as a professional choreographer since 2017. Jacobs has performed on virtually every professional stage in San Diego County, including in multiple shows at Cygnet Theatre, San Diego Musical Theatre and Moonlight Stage Productions. He was also featured in the cast of the Old Globe’s 2021 production of “Hair.”

Jacobs talked about “Irma Vep,” which opened in previews on Thursday, in a recent email interview.

Q: Had you seen “The Mystery of Irma Vep” before you were cast in the show?

A: I like to think myself well-versed in the queer theatrical canon, but this one had totally escaped me. Charles Ludlam, like the Oscar Wildes and the Noel Cowards before him, wrote material that really requires a long chew on the content. It’s really verbose and flowery, and it takes some sifting through to find intent. I find that very queer. Very clever, referential content that you have to let wash over you and absorb over time. Sometimes it’s pure, delicious absurdity — not intended to be understood — but the cool audience members would never let on that they don’t ‘get it.’ That is very queer.

Q: What have rehearsals been like with your castmate Bryan? Has it been exhausting?

A: Exhausting is an understatement. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a show where I wasn’t able to go offstage for a minute or two and decompress ... prepare for my next scene ... wrap my head around where I need to be next. ... In this show, those pauses are a 30-second quick change. It’s nuts. Given those circumstances, you really have to lean on your scene partner. Luckily, Bryan Banville and I have worked together quite a bit together. There was a season or two where we were involved in 10 or 12 months of shows together. I’ll never get those years back. ... Bryan and I are very good friends. It’s made this process possible. The level of trust and intimacy we’ve had to dive into very quickly would be challenging without some prior familiarity. We have very similar senses of humor and approaches to theater-making, as well. I respect the hell out of Bryan, but please don’t ever mention that to him.

Q: What has been the most fun about bringing Enid (and your other characters) to life?

A: I think in every queer person of a certain age, there is a classic film/stage diva crouching inside them. I’ve been letting her out throughout my life here and there (onstage and off), but with this show, she’s really able to make a grand and proper entrance. The unique difficulty is how vastly different my two main characters are (Lady Enid and Nicodemus). I get to be the trope-ish, delicate lady of the house and 15 seconds later have to be a crusty groundskeeper. What a transformation.

‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’

When: 7 p.m. Thursdays. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 24

Where: Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., San Diego

Tickets: $20-$55

Phone: (619) 220-0097