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This was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 11, 1998.
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Review: `The Mystery of Irma Vep’
For many fans, including myself, "The Mystery of
Irma Vep" was the high point in the 20-year history of the
Theatrical Company. Under the brilliantly eccentric tutelage of its
late founder, playwright, director, and star, Charles Ludlam,
extravaganzas synthesized wit, parody, vaudeville, farce, melodrama,
and satire to expose convention, myth, and sacred cow for what it
was — an object for Ludlam’s inspired ridicule.
With "The Mystery of Irma Vep," Ludlam took his inspiration
from such venerable Gothic fare as "Wuthering Heights,"
"The Hound of the Baskervilles," and "The Mummy."
In their tiny theater on Sheridan Square (no longer the company home),
Ludlam was assisted to perfection by Everett Quinton (who, after
death, became artistic leader of the company) the two masters of
and mayhem portrayed multiple characters, all of whom appeared and
disappeared through the mist of the Moors with Houdini-like magic.
It has been 14 years since "Irma Vep" was first let loose
in the world, and a first-class revival of Ludlam’s comic masterpiece
has opened at the Westside Theater. The new production has been
the kind of extravagantly over-the-top settings by John Lee Beatty,
brilliantly manipulative lighting effects by Paul Gallo, and a parade
of costumes-to-die-for by William Ivey Long. It features Quinton
seen as Jacob Marley in McCarter Theater’s "Christmas Carol")
in the roles originally played by Ludlam, and Stephen DeRosa, a
farceur, playing the other roles "en travestie" and otherwise.
Ludlam’s treacherous "penny dreadful" journey begins and ends
at Mandacrest, an accursed manor house of Victorian vintage and, in
keeping with its location on England’s moors, notable for its chilling
atmosphere, sliding walls, and hidden passageways. What happens
between the moody lord of the manor and his demure lady and their
various intruders in the night shouldn’t happen to a werewolf. A scene
in a trash and treasure-filled Egyptian crypt is a howl where the
opening of a sarcophagus introduces us to a seductive, undulating
mummy. It’s enough to give a Sphinx pause.
The mystery, we soon discover is not so much who did it, but how do
they (Quinton and DeRosa) do it. Both actors seem to have an
ability (no doubt with the help of any number of nimble-fingered
assistants), to instantly assume complex, fully-costumed identities
of either sex.
When it’s time for a bloodthirsty vampire, a somber lord of the manor,
a mysterious housekeeper, a grotesque-looking, mentally unstable
boy, a befuddled werewolf, or the demure new mistress of Mandacrest
to exit and re-enter, often at their own peril, the deed is done with
applause-earning speed. And do our minds begin to play tricks on us
or is that really blood dripping from a "living" portrait
of the first mistress of Mandacrest?
Don’t worry about following the inane, insane, and convoluted plot
that prompts even one of the characters to remark, "this makes
no sense." Just be prepared for an evening of hilarious horrors
amidst dark shadows, bone-chilling howling, and a basic lesson in
hieroglyphics. A full moon means more than empty arms when the moors
come alive and mysterious forces propel this comic masterpiece towards
its dark and daffy conclusions.
I’m not sure I can remember exactly what it was that really happened
to the young boy Victor and his pet wolf, Victor, or who was Irma
Vep. But, in the end, it is the performances of Everett and DeRosa
that will astound and amaze you. Watching them sashay, stagger, and
stumble around the old dank manor only to reappear seconds later out
of a storm-swept night as a different character is a riotous blast.
— Simon Saltzman
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