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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

Ridiculous

Theatrical Company. Under the brilliantly eccentric tutelage of its

late founder, playwright, director, and star, Charles Ludlam,

outrageous

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,"

"Rebecca,"

"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

Ludlam’s

death, became artistic leader of the company) the two masters of

makeup

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

afforded

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

(previously

seen as Jacob Marley in McCarter Theater’s "Christmas Carol")

in the roles originally played by Ludlam, and Stephen DeRosa, a

sterling

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

within,

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

astonishing

ability (no doubt with the help of any number of nimble-fingered

backstage

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

stable

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.

HHH

— Simon Saltzman

The Mystery of Irma Vep, Westside Theater, 407 West 43,

212-239-6200. $45.


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