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A CurtainUp Review
The Mystery of Irma Vep
By Elyse Sommer
But hilariously on target as Ludlum and Quinton's interpretation was, the play's clever mix of parody, vaudeville, farce, melodrama and satire re-invented and burglarized from many cultural genres was strong enough to work even without its original wizards. The Mystery of Irma Vep became Ludlam's biggest, most often produced play. Some of its many regional and world wide productions succeeded even without the two-character casting. However, that two-actor conceit was at the heart of the playwright's intent and fortunately most productions have honored it.
I can't think of a better way to celebrate Irma Vep's thirtieth anniversary than at the Red Bull Theater''s home on Christopher Street which is just a stone's throw away from the Theatrical Theater Company's original venue. And with Everett Quinton directing and two superb comic actors — Arnie Burton and Robert Sella — handling the quick character and costume changes, there's plenty to celebrate about this latest version of what Ludlum aptly subtitled "A Penny Dreadful.
All the plot sources for this beloved cultural burglary are in place: Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, and The Mummy's Curse. And the dialogue is awash in literary allusions like "Irma hath murdered sleep" and knowing references to the on-stage sex switches like "Well, any man who dresses up as a woman can't be all bad."
To capsulize the you've got to see it to believe and appreciate it story: The curtain opens on the drawing room of Manderley — make that Mandacrest — to which Egyptologist Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Robert Sella) has brought his bride Lady Enid (Arnie Burton). To bring the audience up to date on the marital complications stemming from Lord Edgar's lingering attachment to his dead wife there's wooden-legged, buck-toothed grounds keeper Nicodemus Underwood (Burton again) and disgruntled Mrs. Danverish housekeeper, Jane Twisden (Sella again).
A few scenes early on, at least at the preview I attended, didn't instantly catch the show's usual rat-a-tat- laugh tempo. But the laugh meter jumped soon enough. Watching Burton segue from Nicodemus-to-Lady Enid-to-Nicodemus and Sella from Jane Twisden-to-Lord Hillcrest-to Jane TwisdenT is a laugh riot. And the sight gags and complications pile up as fast as their incredibly speedy character and costume switches (kudos for the latter to Ramona Ponce). Actually, some of Burton's wordless shtick is often funny enough to upstage the dialogue.
Another major unseen partner in this enterprise, scenic designer John Arnone, allows the second act to take Lord Edgar to Egypt accompanied by a creepy Egyptian guide (Burton) and the discovery of a mummy case miraculously containing a lively Mummy (yes, Burton!). Before long it's back to Mandacrest, with the Mummy case installed in the drawing room along with the Irma's changing portrait and a continuing parade of hairpin turnarounds by the stellar duo. A scene which has Nicodemus battle with his werewolf self is a laugh to outdo all the many laughs.
The already praised scenic and and costume designs, are outstandingly supported by Peter West and Brandon Wolcott's evocative lighting and 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 well matched comic talents.
Directed by Everett Quinton
Cast: Arnie Burton (Nicodemus Underwood/Lady Enid Hillrest/Alcazar/Pev Amri), Robert Sella (Jane Twiden/Lord Edgar hillcrest)
Scenic design by John Arnone
Costume design by Ramona Ponc Lighting design by Peter West
Sound design by Brandon Wolcott
Wig Design: Aaron Kinchen
Stage Manager: Betsy Ayer
Running Time: 2 hours, with 1 intermission
Red Bull Theater Lucille Lortel Theater 121 Christopher Street
From 4/10/14; opening 4/17/14; closing 5/11/14
Tuesday & Wednesday evenings at 7:30pm, Thursday & Friday evenings at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm, and Sunday matinees at 3pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/14/14 press preview