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A CurtainUp Review
The Mystery of Irma Vep (a penny dreadful)
By Elyse Sommer
If ever there was a theatrical marriage made in heaven, it's surely the pairing of Everett Quinton and Stephen DeRosa in what is likely to be the laugh hit of the Off-Broadway season, The Mystery of Irma Vep, a penny dreadful. That's Vep as in Vampire and penny dreadful as in 19th-century fiction genre that seeded the pulps. This revival's win-win-win elements are best summed by continuing the metaphor with this modified bit of doggerel for brides to be :
Some things old,
Several things new,
Many things borrowed,
Laughs guaranteed even if you're feeling blue.
Some things old --
The late Charles Ludlum's 1984 side-splitting gothic spoof with its original co-star, Everett Quinton directing as well as starring and the full realization of the show's sleight-of-hand magic trick of two actors playing eight roles requiring constant costume, wig and personality shifts. (Ed. Note: Some of the show's many regional and international productions have been sell-outs even without the two-character conceit that was at the heart of the playwright's intent. Clever as Ludlam's play is, it's the two-actors doing it all, and these two actors in particularl, that accounts for this revival's success.)
Several things new --
For starters there's the lush new production, with deliciously ridiculous scenery by John Lee Beatty and costumes by William Ivey Long, (with one of Quinton's gowns delightfully overstating the synergy between the two designers). Most importantly there's DeRosa's smartly underplayed take on the parts originally played by Quinton and Quinton's outrageously over-the-top interpretation of the role originated by Ludlam. (If DeRosa's name is unfamiliar to you, you might want to check out the link at the end to Les Gutman's review of his work in Love's Fire)
Many things borrowed --
Irma is awash in bits and pieces parody, vaudeville, farce, melodrama and satire re-invented from the cultural genres Ludlam clearly adored. The plot sources for this cultural burglary include the Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, and The Mummy's Curse. The dialogue is peppered with literary allusions (i.e. "Irma hath murdered sleep") and amusingly knowing references to the on-stage sex switches (i.e. "Well, any man who dresses up as a woman can't be all bad"). Guaranteed to make you laugh even if you're feeling blue --
As baseball's Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa broke Roger Maris's and Babe Ruth's home run records, so Quinton and De Rosa are sure to generate enough laughs to insure that this new-old revival zooms past the original production's 300-performance run at the erstwhile basement theater that housed the Ridiculous" Theater from 1967 to to 1997. (The theater's motto was "the scourge of human folly").
To try to capsulize the story Ludlam has concocted from his inspirational sources, the curtain opens on the drawing room of Manderley --oops, I mean Mandercrest -- to which an Egyptologist named Lord Edgar Hillcrest has brought his bride Lady Enid. To bring us up to date on the marital complications stemming from Lord Edgar's lingering attachment to his dead wife there's wooden-legged, buck-toothed butler Nicodemus Underwood and disgruntled housekeeper, Mrs Danvers -- oops again, I mean, Jane Twisden. And as Quinton and DeRosa seague from Nicodemus-to-Lady Enid-to-Nicodemus (Quinton) and Jane Twisden-to-Lord Hillcrest-to Jane Twisden, the sight gags and complications pile up as fast as their incredibly speedy character switches.
By act two the scenery takes a quick spin along with the characters. We now have Lord Edgar in Egypt accompanied by a creepy Egyptian guide wearing a fez and carrying a shopping bag. Before long it's back to Mandercrest. The Mummy case has been installed in the drawing room along with the Irma's changing portrait and provides yet another opportunity for more entrances and exits for the continuing marathon of hairpin turnarounds by Quinton and DeRosa.
A scene during which Nicodemus battles with his werewolf self best explains why all this defies description but has to be seen to be believed and fully appreciated. The already praised scenic and and costume designs, are outstandingly supported by Paul Gallo's on-target lighting, Peter Golub's music and One Dream Sound's evocative sound effects.
If it all sounds silly, so it is. But this is a master's silliness, brought to the level of great comedic timing by two perfectly mated comic talents. May they have the energy to keep audiences laughing for as long as their upstairs neighbor (I Love You You're Perfect, Now Change ).
Our review of The Secret Life of the Sexists during the summer'98 season in the Berkshires
Les Gutman's review of Love's Fire with Stephen DeRosa.