Friday, April 18, 2014

The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful ****

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 30 years since Charles Ludlum’s satire of Victorian melodrama was first staged. Red Bull Theater is celebrating this anniversary with a hilarious revival now at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. The play’s main gimmick is that all seven roles, both male and female, are played by two male actors — Ludlum and his longtime partner Everett Quinton in the original production. Ludlum died tragically three years after the play’s opening, but Quinton is fortunately still with us and has lovingly directed this revival starring Robert Sella and Arnie Burton. The play holds up surprisingly well and the actors acquit themselves quite honorably in all their roles: Lord Edgar and Lady Edith Hillcrest, the masters of Mandacrest; loyal servant Jane, one-legged swineherd Nicodemus, Egyptologist Alcazar, the mysterious Pev Amri, and, of course, Irma Vep. The convoluted plot is ridiculous in the extreme — just know that it involves the deceased first Lady Hillcrest, a vampire, a werewolf and a mummy. The language is floridly archaic (think “fain” and “gibbous”) with nods to Shakespeare and Poe, among others. The fast character changes are very funny, with one brilliant tour de force in the second act. And it’s not often you get to hear a dulcimer duet. The play’s Egyptian scene is side-slappingly funny. Scenic designer John Arnone, costume designer Ramona Ponce, lighting designer Peter West, sound designer Brandon Wolcott and wig designer Aaron Kinchen have all made delightful contributions to the production’s success. Be forewarned — if your tolerance for silliness and high camp is limited, you will not enjoy this show. There is absolutely no redeeming social value, just a lot of laughs. Running time: 2 hours including intermission.

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