Nimble ‘Mystery of Irma Vep’ quick-changes the laughs at Court Theatre

By Chris Jones

Nov. 24, 2009
THEATER REVIEW: “The Mystery of Irma Vep” ___ 1/2 Through Dec. 13 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.; Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes; Tickets: $32-$56 at 773-753-4472.
Few genres are as fragile as the Theatre of the Ridiculous. Many are the enthusiastic comic stylists who have attempted such classics of the Charles Ludlam genre as “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” only to be hoisted on their own campy petards, done in by overacting, anemic pacing, dribbling pauses, overearnest flatness or some fatal combination thereof. Like all of Ludlam’s deceptively tricky creations, “Irma Vep” is like the impossible carnival game where you roll a coin onto a conveyor and try to land between the lines. Touch the edges and your quarter spends the night in the trough. The Court Theatre, though, has a winner.
Quite a timely winner, actually. Rearrange the letters of “Irma Vep,” which was penned in 1984 , and see what you get. How au courant is that? The beloved Ludlam, who died in 1987 at the age of 44, must be doing a little triumphant roll in his decked-out grave.
Sean Graney’s revival of this two-man spoof—a whacked-out, blood-sucking blend of the likes of “Rebecca,” “Dracula” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles”—delivers a veritable plethora of yuks. Despite all those portentous doctoral dissertations on the subversiveness of the Theatre of the Ridiculous, this is not dramatic profundity. Not any more. There is really one criteria upon which “Irma Vep” now need be judged. Is it funny? Oh, yes. You will laugh your face off.
Graney, a director who likes rolling the dice near the edge, fell afoul of the equally tricky Joe Orton (“What the Butler Saw”) in this same theater not many shows ago. But he has curbed any stylistically self-destructive tendencies here, delivering a show as deft, will-timed and polished as a discriminating vampire fang meeting its mark.
If someone were to pitch “Vep” today (and if that person didn’t, as Ludlam did, have his or her own theater), that someone would be told that 90 minutes is long enough. And rightly so. But with the help of a clever bit of climactic staging, Graney keeps the amusements flowing for the full two-act duration. I’ve seen a lot of “Veps”; this is the first one that didn’t descend into vamps.
The central gag in this piece is that two actors—here Erik Hellman and Chris Sullivan —play all the roles in this mist-coated moors mystery, replete with a lord of the manor, a couple of competitive ladies of the manor (dead and undead), and a cheeky maid. Precisely how many parts they play, both in and out of drag, depends on how you define “parts.”
Many of the giggles come from the speed within which these two quick-changed gents must unbuckle the maid, so to speak, and take up the lord. Fast-paced changes of Alison Siple’s riotous costumes fuel the night, and Graney has them doffed and undoffed at dizzying speed.
The Court show is uncommonly well cast and, in no small measure, the piece works so well because the performers come and go from both stereotypical ends of the two genders, rather than spending the night in the muddled theatrical middle.
Hellman’s maid is a most fetching and amusing creation—a cynic with fluttering mascara located slap in the heart of Ludlam territory. Sullivan (whom you may have seen in either “The Hairy Ape” at the Goodman Theatre or “Don’t Dress for Dinner” at the Royal George) is a big and powerful fellow with a huge head. He looks a lot like that old Charlie Chaplin foil Eric Campbell. And when he plays one of the Lady whatnots, it’s rather like Olin Kreutz putting on a dress. If the Bears center could act.
The piece splutters when it moves to Egypt—“Vep” always splutter when it move to Egypt. But to the great credit of all concerned here, Hellman and Sullivan offer laudable emotional commitment as the secret compartment appears from the bookcase, the portrait spurts blood and other trickery in Jack Magaw’s trick-filled set has its merry way.
Hellman even keeps it real as, feather duster in hand, he polishes the footlights, which says it all.