BWW Reviews: Red Bull's THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP Could Use More Ridiculousness
Those who remember the glory days of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company surely treasure those distinctively rough edges that were a beloved trademark. Ludlam's style of camp and subversive parody was decidedly lacking in glamour. The actors he employed often carried an unconventional presence in looks, speech pattern or vocal timbre that still isn't seen frequently in mainstream theatre.
So perhaps it's a little jarring that Red Bull Theater's 30th anniversary production of Ludlam's most popular success, The Mystery of Irma Vep: a Penny Dreadful, is slick, polished and funny, but not especially ridiculous.
Maybe this type of theatre, where a handful of actors (in this case, two) quickly change costumes to play multiple characters, has become so commonplace these days that Irma Vep's inventiveness doesn't leap out without those rough edges firmly on display.
Ludlam's mixture of Victorian melodrama and gothic horror was originally performed by the playwright himself and his longtime acting and romantic partner, Everett Quinton; two actors of exceedingly watchable eccentricity. Quinton directs this production that features Arnie Burton and Robert Sella, a versatile pair who first appear as the exposition-spewing swineherd (Burton) and maid (Sella).
It seems the master of the house, noted Egyptologist Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Sella), has recently married Lady Enid (Burton), though he has yet to get over the mysterious death of his first wife, Irma Vep.
Believing that his new love has been bitten by a vampire, Lord Edgar ventures on a jaunt to Egypt, where he expects to learn more of the secrets of eternal life from the ancient tombs.
A sinister local, Alcazar (Burton), guides him to a little-known crypt for a shocking encounter with the inhabitant of a sarcophagus. (Or, as Alcazar calls it, a sarcoFAGus.)
Ludlam always insisted that his comedies be played with grave seriousness, which translated into high comedy when played by actors with unique presence and pronounced peculiarities. Sella and Burton prove to be accomplished character men who quickly morph into completely new personas, but the ridiculousness is lacking, so their commitment to seriousness somewhat diminishes the overall hilarity.
That's not to say there aren't plenty of good laughs, such as the running gag about an extremely boring book and some silly low-budget special effects. A newcomer to the piece would probably not notice anything amiss and find the evening charming. but charm is no match for subversiveness.