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The Mystery of Irma Vep

Arena Stage's production of Charles Ludlam's delightful romp falls short of its intended hilarity. logo
J. Fred Shiffman and Brad Oscar
in The Mystery of Irma Vep
(© Scott Suchman)
Charles Ludlam's crowd-pleasing send-up The Mystery of Irma Vep is a delightful romp in which two male actors play all eight characters, male and female, thanks to lightning-speed costume changes from start to finish. But the real mystery of Rebecca Bayla Taichman's production at Arena Stage is how two seasoned farceurs, Brad Oscar and J. Fred Shiffman, can enjoyably camp it up -- and change from frock to frock all evening -- but still fall short of the play's potential for hilarity.

Ludlam's comic penny-dreadful spoof of Gothic melodrama takes place mostly in a shadowy old manor house where the Lord's new bride feels as if the eyes in the portrait over the fireplace are following her around the drawing room. You get the picture faster than you can say Rebecca, and then the lively campfest, not content with stirring the same pot all night, puts a mummified Egyptian princess and finally a werewolf on the premises.

The work may initially seem a ragbag of cultural references, but it's actually not random; its organizing joke is that it raids high culture in service of the tacky story it presents. True, we're watching a man in a dress run from a monster in a haunted mansion, but we're hearing dialogue lifted from the likes of Henrik Ibsen, Emily Bronte, and even William Shakespeare.

This production brings its own new cultural references to the mix, mostly in the form of sound effects -- such as the instantly recognizable one from Law & Order -- and brief asides from the actors. Unfortunately, they don't follow the same high-to-low route that Ludlam did. Rather, every time this kind of thing pops up in the spirit of playfulness in this production, the artful balance in Ludlam's divine lunacy is sabotaged by the merely silly.

While both actors nail the broad style of the piece with gleeful panache, Oscar is too broad in his central role of Lady Enid Hillcrest, turning in a somewhat bland hand-on-forehead performance. Behind the scenes, often just out of sight, a team of dressers bring off the actors' quick changes seemingly without a hitch. They joined in the final bow on stage to much deserved applause.

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