|L-R: Robert Sella and Arnie Burton in THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP. Photo by Carol Rosegg.|
Charles Ludlam was a remarkable theatrical talent: a prolific playwright with 29 works to his credit; founder of the avant garde Ridiculous Theatrical Company; and an accomplished and flamboyant performer who not only starred in his own plays but produced and directed them as well. His most successful play, The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful, was first staged off-Broadway in 1984 and ran for nearly two years. It has since been staged all over the world: it was produced in London’s West End in 1990; it was the most produced play in the US in 1991; and it became the longest running play in Brazilian history in 2003.
Currently it is receiving a 30th Anniversary Revival by Red Bull Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street in the West Village in downtown Manhattan. Red Bull Theater takes it as its mission “to explore great classic plays of heightened language.” That being the case, what better play than The Mystery of Irma Vep could Red Bull have selected to celebrate its own tenth anniversary? For if Irma Vep is nothing else, surely it is a play of “heightened language.” It is a grand send-up of more literary, theatrical and film genres than you can shake a pen at: Aristophanes and Shakespeare, horror stories and gothic novels, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe, Victorian melodrama and film noir, werewolves and vampires, Egyptian mummies and Alfred Hitchcock...the list goes on and on.
The Mystery of Irma Vep is a rollicking two hander in which two actors play seven different roles – male, female, or some other species altogether – appearing and disappearing; limping and leaping; entering and exiting; losing a leg and regaining it; changing, cross-dressing, and transforming – and all in the blink of an eye. It seems that Irma Vep (an anagram of “v-a-m-p-i-r-e”), Lord Edgar Hillcrest’s first wife, died along with her son, Victor, under mysterious circumstances: her throat was torn out by her pet wolf (also named Victor) – or perhaps by a different wolf. Or maybe even a werewolf.
Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Robert Sella) has since re-married; his second wife, Lady Enid Hillcrest (played by Arnie Burton in drag) remains jealous of his first wife and is something of a strange bird herself: she appears to sleep all day and only comes out at night. Jane Twisden (also played by Robert Sella in drag) is the housekeeper at Mandacrest, the Hillcrest Estate, and is herself in love with Lord Edgar. Nicodemus Underwood (also played by Arnie Burton) is the Estate’s swineherd, hobbling about on his wooden leg – except when he’s not – and lusting after Jane.
Most of the play’s action transpires at Mandacrest but Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist, also gets to travel to Egypt where he encounters Alcazar (Arnie Burton again), a guide to the Egyptian tombs. It is there that he discovers Pev Amri (yup, she’s played by Arnie Burton too), a long dead and buried Egyptian princess whom he seeks to resurrect with hilarious results.
In the original production of Irma Vep in 1984, it was Charles Ludlam himself and his longtime companion Everett Quinton who played all the roles. Sadly, Ludlam died of AIDS prematurely in 1987 and couldn’t be here to see this excellent revival of his work. But fortunately Quinton is still with us and, in fact, it is he who directed this latest incarnation of Ludlam’s classic. (What goes around, comes around.)
The plot of Irma Vep is manifestly preposterous but no matter. The play’s goal, after all, is not really to convey a coherent story but, rather, to provide two very talented actors with an opportunity to display their comic skills (with particular emphasis on cross-dressing; indeed, to that end, Ludlam actually stipulated that the two actors must be of the same sex to ensure that cross-dressing would take place). In that it succeeded admirably in 1984 when Ludlam and Quinton starred. And today, in this 30th Anniversary Revival, it again succeeds splendidly: both Arnie Burton and Robert Sella are exceptionally talented actors (and quick change artists) and their portrayals of men, women, werewolves, mummies and vampires are truly superlative.