Scourge of Human Folly

The word “wolves” has three syllables in Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep—it’s pronounced something like “wool-vuh-zz”—and, like everything in this spoof of Gothic narratives, it is unflappably silly and rather funny despite itself.  Irma Vep, which plays a bit like the creative team behind The Naked Gun hijacked Hitchcock’s Rebecca, features two actors (Arnie Burton and Robert Sella) straddling eight different roles and about as many accents.  Lord Edgar (Mr. Sella), an Egyptologist, brings his second bride, Lady Enid (Mr. Burton), back to his home Mandacrest Estate.  His first wife, Irma Vep (the name is an anagram of “vampire,” as those who have seen the 1915 French serial Les Vampires will already know), continues to haunt the place both literally and figuratively, her portrait overlooking the living room and her maid, Jane Twisden (Mr. Sella), remaining loyal to her memory long after her death.  Any further explanation of plot would be both fruitless and beside the point: needless to say, before the final curtain, we meet not only the title vampire but also a werewolf and a reanimated ancient Egyptian princess.

Mr. Burton and Mr. Sella are stellar in this revival directed by Everett Quinton, Ludlam’s former lover and co-star of the original production.  Shedding costumes with acrobatic timing and switching hammy English accents on and off with the speed of first-rate vaudevillians, they prove the apotheosis of camp, and kind of seem like they are in drag even when dressed as men.  It is further testament to their skill that Irma Vep rarely lags despite its one note, and the odd wink at the audience never threatens the sincerity which makes their performances such a success.  Only a certain kind of actor can shriek in a man’s falsetto, “It’s a terrible thing to marry an Egyptologist and find out he’s hung up on his mummy.”

I’m still sorry to see that the Red Bull Theater has traded in classic theater for twentieth century comedies; there are too few groups out there willing to mount, say, Marlowe’s Edward II.  Nevertheless, Irma Vep is a significant improvement over their last production, and this madcap adventure gives us a solid sense of a certain nook of ‘eighties New York theater that many may have missed the first time it came around.

The Mystery of Irma Vep runs through May 11th at the Lucille Lortel Theater.  121 Christopher Street  New York, NY.  2 hours.  One intermission.

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Aaron Botwick

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