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The Mystery of Irma Vep

  • Theater, Off Broadway
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

The Mystery of Irma Vep. Lucille Lortel Theatre (see Off Broadway). By Charles Ludlam. Directed by Everett Quinton. With Arnie Burton and Robert Sella. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.

The Mystery of Irma Vep: In brief

Red Bull Theater unwraps a 30th-anniversary revival of Charles Ludlam's classic camp burlesque of Victorian melodrama and horror, in which werewolves, vampires and mummies terrorize the inhabitants of an English manse. Arnie Burton and Robert Sella split all the roles between them, directed by the masterful Everett Quinton (the widower Ludlam himself).

The Mystery of Irma Vep: Theater review by Raven Snook

Sixteen years ago, I saw—twice—the first Off Broadway revival of Charles Ludlam’s deliriously funny Gothic satire, The Mystery of Irma Vep, and I still remember how much my body ached from spastic laughter. So I worried that Red Bull Theater’s 30th-anniversary mounting might dilute my glorious memories of the cross-dressing comedy. I needn’t have. Everett Quinton—the late Ludlam’s partner onstage and off, and costar of both the original and 1998 Irma Vep productions—now sits on the director’s throne. His intimate knowledge of the campy two-hander’s every punch line, sight gag and cultural reference has been bequeathed to stars Arnie Burton and Robert Sella, who take the ball gowns and run with ’em.

The plot is a mash-up of Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, horror movies, Victorian melodrama, and all of the other odds and ends knocking about in Ludlam’s brain. Former thespian Lady Enid (Burton in drag, hilarious but always channeling a real woman) attempts to adjust to life at the mysterious Mandacrest estate with her new husband, Lord Edgar (Sella, spot-on), an Egyptologist and widower haunted by the death of his first wife, Irma.

Sella and Burton play all of the other roles, too, including a prim maid (Sella in drag), a lustful swineherd (Burton), a shady tour guide (Burton) and more, and their incredible quick changes are uproarious—especially the tour de force sequence in which Burton has a conversation with himself. But they also milk laughs out of strategic mispronunciations (you’ll never hear the word sarcophagus the same way again), over-the-top slapstick (Lady Enid’s theatrical gestures are a hoot) and riotous bits of stage business that require unwavering precision. Timing is everything here, and the duo makes Swiss watches look unreliable.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the smorgasbord of genres being spoofed, watching Irma Vep is like mainlining farce. Prepare for a humor hangover.—Theater review by Raven Snook 

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