It is a dark and stormy night. The wind howls and werewolves prowl on the moors of the mysterious Mandacrest mansion.
This could be any one of a number of Gothic romances. It's actually all of them mixed together. Now in production at Boston's Lyric Stage, the late Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep: a Penny Dreadful is a sendup of every Gothic novel, 30s horror film, and classic romance to have ever sent thrills and chills down your spine.
Irma Vep has all the elements of a romantic horror story, including vampires, mummies, a family curse, portraits which come to life, a servant with a peg leg, mysterious deaths and a tragic love triangle (or quadrangle as the case may be).
Puns and self-referential humor create a production in the style of the Hasty Pudding. Two male actors play all the roles; they make impossibly quick changes of both character and costume, creating a frenzy of melodramatic camp.
Director Robert J. Bouffier's production of Irma Vep features wonderful acting and clever bits of direction. It simple set, lighting and sound designs construct a perfectly eerie mood.
Although moments of great writing and clever gags abound, the show is at times dull and, after some very witty opening scenes, fails to sustain interest for the duration of its two-hour running time.
The fault lies in part with Bouffier, who doesn't give the show the high-speed pacing it demands, and in part with the show itself--which may be too long for its own good.
There are some great parodies of Bronte, Moliere and Shakespeare. But there are a few too many truly bad puns, along the order of "Virginity is like a balloon at the carnival...it pops at the first prick..." And there are far too many attacks by wolves and goblins.
Actor Mark S. Cartier does a strong job as the beleaguered Lord Edgar and Jane Twisden, the housekeeper with a secret to hide. His Jane is a perfect re-creation of the archetypal matron devoted to her house and to her mistress.
As the crippled groundskeeper Nicodemus Underwood, the master's new mistress Lady Enid and Alcazar the entrepreneurial Egyptian tour guide, Diego Arceniegas is also very strong. He plays Nicodemus with just the right combination of threatening coarseness and pathetic awkwardness.
Irma Vep was originally written, directed acted and produced by Charles Ludlam and his troupe, The Ridiculous Theatre Company. It follows in the tradition of their other satires, featuring quick changes physical comedy, verbal games, and a bit of cross dressing.
Under the direction of Ludlam, the group produced witty spoofs on theater, literature music, and society for almost 20 years at then venue in Greenwich Village. They enjoyed a cult following among members of the New York City theater community. It is difficult to tell whether these plays can hold their own outside the Ridiculous Company and in the absence of the great directorial and performance skills of Landlam, who died of AIDS in 1987.
Whether Irma Vep played better under Ludlam's direction is difficult for this reviewer to say (who has only seen the Lyric Stage production). But given the stellar reputation of the original production, it must have.