From the moment I saw The Mystery of Irma Vep I knew it was destined to become one of my all time favorite comedies. I had first been introduced to it in 1995 while working as a house manager at Allenberry Playhouse, a small regional theatre close to my native home in south central Pennsylvania. Each night I was scheduled to work, I would grab a seat in the back and eagerly await the performance. During the 4 week run, I must have watched it at least 10 times and I would still howl with the audience as though it were the first time I was seeing it.
Another servicable production was presented in 2007 at New York’s Urban Stages. Again, it left me in stitches. So I was filled with absolute glee when I heard that Red Bull Theatre was reviving this 1984 gem from the genius mind of Charles Ludlam. Under the accomplished direction of Everett Quinton, Ludlam’s partner and original co-star, this 30th year anniversary production is every bit as outrageous and deliriously joyful as it should be.
The “penny dreadful” is a two person camp-fest which references countless classic films from Nosferatu to Wuthering Heights. Lady Irma Vep has died and her widow, Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Robert Sella) has taken a new love, Lady Enid Hillcrest (Arnie Burton). Jane Twisden (also played by Burton), is the head maid at Mandacrest, the estate on which they reside. She is not all enamored with Lady Enid and constantly compares her with the former lady of the house. Werewolves abound, drunken truths are revealed, and a trip to Egypt follows. There is delicious humorous value in all of it.
It is understandable why Ludlam was hesitant to immediately grant the rights to his show after the original 1984 production became a smash hit. In the hands of less skillful performers, it could be a complete train wreck. But Burton and Sella are both on point and manage to pull off the quick changes with tireless dexterity and sangfroid.
Shows with this caliber of wit are rarely seen and Red Bull Theater must be applauded for not only blessing us with this milestone production, but for executing it with the highest level of quality it deserves.
Mystery of Irma Vep is now playing through May 11th off Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street (between Bleeker and Hudson). For tickets, call 212-352-3101, visit www.redbulltheater.com or visit the box office (hours vary).