This Irma Vep achieves a sublime fascination

By John Beer

Nov. 26, 2009

The Mystery of Irma Vep, which debuted in 1984, is perhaps the archetypal camp play. Camp, per Susan Sontag, privileges artifice over beauty, style over content—which holds largely true of Ludlam’s lovingly ridiculous spoof of horror movies and Gothic novels. The twist that sets Irma Vep apart from, say, the Annoyance’s lineup is a quick-change structure that enables two actors to play the myriad denizens of Mandacrest, the English manor bedeviled by all manner of monsters. The play becomes as much about the challenges it tosses to its performers as the dark secrets that Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Hellman) conceals from his new wife, Enid (Sullivan).
Those challenges are brilliantly met by this dynamic Laurel-and-Hardy pair. Sullivan, whose massive frame gives Lady Enid an almost architectural grandeur, gets the finest tour de force: He engages in a seemingly impossible back-and-forth between Enid and his other major character, the one-legged servant Nicodemus. Hellman wields a mean hatchet as the murderous maid Jane and, as pith-helmeted Lord Edgar, intrepidly plumbs the depths of Egyptology. While the first act could run at an even more manic clip, Graney directs with a steady hand. In the second act, at moments such as Enid and Jane’s strangely potent dulcimer duet, this Irma Vep achieves a sublime fascination, conveying Ludlam’s affection for his misbegotten sources. And Graney’s audacious closing move adds yet another layer of meaning to this daffily compelling play.