Friday, November 13, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of The Mystery Of Irma Vep at The Players Theatre by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Charles Ludlam's The Mystery Of Irma Vep at The Players Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Mystery Of Irma Vep
Written by Charles Ludlam
Directed by Christian Amato
The Players Theatre
115 MacDougal Street
New York, New York 10012
Reviewed 11/12/15  

The Mystery Of Irma Vep was first produced by Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, opening off-off-Broadway at One Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village in September 1984 and closing in April 1986. It starred Ludlam as Lady Enid, the new mistress of Mandacrest, and Everett Quinton as Lord Edgar Hillcrest, the master of the manor. Ludlam and Quinton played all the characters (male and female), In order to ensure cross-dressing, licenses to perform the play include a stipulation that the actors must be of the same sex. The original "cast and crew" won a special Drama Desk Award, and Ludlam and Quinton won the 1985 Obie Award for Ensemble Performance. 

Highlights of The Manifesto of the Ridiculous Theatre included the following pearls of wisdom: "The things one takes seriously are one's weaknesses."; "The comic hero thrives on his vices. The tragic hero is destroyed by his virtue. Moral paradox is the crux of drama."; and "The theater is a humble materialist enterprise which seeks to produce riches of the imagination, not the other way around." The Mystery Of Irma Vep was also identified as a penny dreadful, which is a term used to refer to cheap popular serial literature produced during the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom. The subject matter of those stories were typically sensational, focusing on the exploits of detectives, criminals, or supernatural entities. They were published in weekly installments, each costing one (old) penny. The penny dreadfuls were the most alluring and low-priced form of escapist reading available to ordinary working-class youth. 

The Mystery Of Irma Vep was produced in the West End in London in 1990 at the Ambassadors Theatre, after a season at the Haymarket Theatre (Leicester). In 1991, it was the most-produced play in the United States. The show was later produced off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre from September 1998 through July 1999, with Quinton and Stephen DeRosa. That production won the 1999 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Revival, along with Outer Critics Circle Award nominations for Outstanding Revival of a Play, Outstanding Lighting Design (John Lee Beatty), and Outstanding Costume Design (William Ivey Long). 

This production, which is performed in three acts without intermission, involved at least 35 costume changes and a large number of sound cues, props, and special effects. There are vampires, ghosts, mummies, and werewolves. It is a hilarious parody of Victorian melodrama, gothic horror stories, farce, and Hitchcock-style suspense. The title is the name of a character in the 1915 French movie serial Les Vampires and is an anagram for the word "vampire." It is performed in an overdramatic, camp style by Tyler Nye, who plays Lady Enid (the mistress of the manor), Nicodemus Underwood (the werewolf), and Alcazar (who turns out to be Lady Enid's own father), and by Dominic Sellers, who plays Lord Edgar (the master of the manor), and Jane Twisden (the maid).

The play opens in Mandacrest, the home of Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist, and Lady Enid. Lady Enid is Lord Edgar's second wife, but he has not yet fully recovered from the passing of Irma Vep, his first wife. The house staff includes a maid named Jane Twisden and a swineherd named Nicodemus Underwood. Jane says she loved Lady Irma and is ambivalent about Lady Enid. Nicodemus, on the other hand, likes Lady Enid and promises to be her protector. Both Nicodemus and Jane are hiding secrets; Nicodemus is a reluctant werewolf who is compelled to kill those he loves the most when the full moon is out. Jane is a vampire. Lady Enid is bitten by a vampire and is committed to a sanitarium while Lord Edgar travels to Egypt to discover a cure for her condition. While in Egypt, a female mummy briefly comes to life (after drinking a potion) creating an obsession that finally takes Lord Edgar's mind off his first wife. (Leading to the following quip by Lady Enid: "It's bad enough I married an Egyptologist but I had to marry one who's "hung up on his mummy.") Returning home with the sarcophagus, Edgar is distant and pays little attention to Lady Enid. Jane confesses to Lady Enid that it is she, and not the werewolf, who killed Edgar's first wife and son out of jealousy. (When confronted with how she could kill Lady Irma, who she professed to love, Jane responded, "Love is a kind of madness and madness is a bottomless cup.") Before Jane can kill Lady Enid, Nicodemus, in the form of a werewolf, kills Jane only to be killed in turn by Edgar. Lady Enid discourages Edgar from writing about his experiences in Egypt. To do so, she reveals she was the Egyptian princess who came back to life and that the whole thing was an elaborate sham set up by Alcazar, her father, to discredit him. She went along only to take his mind off his first wife so they could start to live as more than just "brother and sister." (It turns out the tomb of the Egyptian princess was a closed restaurant and that she got into the tomb by simply "walking through the kitchen.") The two reconcile and supposedly live happily ever after - or at least until the next installment of the story is published.

There are a number of questions raised in the play that go unanswered. Is Lady Irma alive or dead? Was she a vampire? Is Nicodemus Lord Edgar's son? If Jane is the person locked in the prison cell, then who is walking around as the maid serving tea? Who locked Jane/Irma in the cell and who is torturing her for information about the jewels hidden in the house? Are there hidden jewels at all? And what about Big Victor and Little Victor; where do they fit into the story? What starts out as a simply ridiculous, outrageous, highly unlikely storyline quickly explodes into the incredible and fantastic requiring you to consciously suspend your disbelief in order to continue to enjoy the wild ride. Fasten those seatbelts for a frenetic fantasy!

Tyler Nye and Dominic Sellers do a fine job portraying all the characters. They are both highly proficient and talented actors who never cease to be entertaining. Some funny lines from the play  include: "Virginity is the balloon in the carnival of life; one prick and it's gone" as well as the statement that "any man who dresses up as a woman can't be all bad." Finally, in coming on to Jane, Nicodemus said, "Give me a little kiss!" Jane responds, "I'll see you hung first!" to which Nicodemus responds, "Give me a kiss and I'll show you how hung I am." 

If you are looking for a way out of your mundane, humdrum existence, a good first step would be seeing Charles Ludlam's campy comedy during its limited run through November 21, 2015 at The Players Theatre. Tickets cost $50.00 for Tier 2 seats (Rows C-N) and $40.00 for Tier 3 seats (Rows O-P). Call 212-352-3101 or purchase your tickets online at 

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