The Mystery of Irma Vep

Two actors present a spectacle of ludicrous proportions in this 30th-anniversary remounting of Charles Ludlam’s classic gothic farce.

 Arnie Burton and Robert Sella play a dulcimer duet in the Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep, directed by Everett Quinton, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
Arnie Burton and Robert Sella play a dulcimer duet in the Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep, directed by Everett Quinton, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

"It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize there were only two actors in this show," a friend told me as we walked away from The Lucille Lortel Theatre, home of the 30th-anniversary revival of Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep. Truly, the characterizations are so distinct, and the quick changes so impossibly quick in Red Bull Theater's remounting, that it's easy to forget that it's a two-hander. Under the loving direction of original cast member Everett Quinton (Ludlam's partner in life and onstage), this play soars to dizzying heights of ridiculousness.

Originally produced a few blocks away at Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company (now home of Axis Company), The Mystery of Irma Vep is undoubtedly Ludlam's most popular work, spawning hundreds of productions around the world. It holds the appropriately ridiculous distinction as the longest-running play in the history of Brazil. With its joyful embrace of melodramatic theater and cinema, it's easy to see why. Irma Vep borrows freely from Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, Shakespeare, Victorian penny dreadfuls, and the entire canon of American vampire, mummy, and werewolf movies. It is simultaneously subversive of and tributary to all these forms, resulting in a theatrical smorgasbord that will have you rolling in the aisles.

The story takes place at Mandacrest, the English country estate of the Hillcrest family. Eminent Egyptologist Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Robert Sella) is a widower, having lost his beloved wife, Irma Vep. He recently remarried Lady Enid (Arnie Burton), a stage actress still uneasy with her new position as Lady of the manor. Her maid, Jane (also Sella), doesn't think she'll ever measure up to Lady Irma. Meanwhile, Lord Edgar is disturbed by strange happenings out on the heath, including the monthly disappearance of his groundskeeper, Nicodemus (also Burton). Fearing that Mandacrest is haunted by a vengeful vampire, Lord Edgar goes on an expedition to Egypt to discover the secrets of immortality.

"The sarcophagus (pronounced sarco-FAG-us) is intact," declares Alcazar (Burton), Lord Edgar's Egyptian guide, as they stumble upon an unknown tomb. Such groan-inducing puns are par for the course in Ludlam's work. Hitchcockian "scary movie" music blares (pitch-perfect sound design by Brandon Wolcott) as Lady Enid fights off a masked assailant. Jane becomes increasingly drunk, revealing Hillcrest family secrets to Enid. The script all but begs for the actors to mug, pose, and chew scenery. On that count, Sella and Burton do not disappoint. They're equally matched in their flamboyance and commitment, whether wearing a frilly nightgown or knee-high hunting boots.

Ramona Ponce's costumes are clearly designed for warp-speed changes (which are executed flawlessly by the cast and crew) rather than authenticity. (What kind of English Lady wears yellow polyester?) Alcazar's costume appears to be completely fashioned out of heavy drapes (Maria von Trapp-style), with a pine-scented air freshener dangling inexplicably off his fez. Yet as buttons fly across the stage with reckless abandon, there's a certain punk-rock chic in this Dumpster-diving aesthetic.

John Arnone's set looks like a pop-up book, with walls that fold out and a mantelpiece that slants precariously stage left. The mummy case sports a big silly grin, with an interior that displays Ludlam's original vulgar hieroglyphics. Peter's West's lighting is über-dramatic, opening the play in pitch-black with Sella holding a lantern under his chin. Everything about this production smacks of maximalism on a budget, proving that you don't need millions of dollars to put on a spectacle. You just need insanely talented actors and unendingly inventive designers.

Quinton has both in this remounting. Old fans will instantly recognize Ludlam's unique theatrical voice. If this is your first experience with the incomparable playwright, you'll likely emerge a convert. This is the kind of fun that gets people hooked on theater in the first place.

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