Theater Review: The Mystery of Irma Vep at American Stage

Credit the actors, who seem to be having as good a time as we are. McGee starts the show as Jane Twisden, servant to Lord Edgar Hillcrest — also played by McGee. Russell at first is Nicodemus Underwood, swineherd and general vulgarian, the diametric opposite of the prim Lady Enid Hillcrest — also played by Russell. Lady Enid, we learn, is the new mistress of Mandacrest, replacing the late Irma Vep, who’s either dead or undead, depending on whom you ask. Lord Edgar has never quite gotten over the loss of his first wife, whose portrait hangs in his study and whose attachment to a wolf named Victor may have led to her little son’s death.

But nothing is simple at Mandacrest: there’s reason to believe that a werewolf killed the young master (are you following this?), and that Victor has been unfairly saddled with the murder. In order to delve deeper into these enigmas, Lord Edgar travels to Egypt where a shrewd guide (Russell again) brings him to the never-before-excavated tomb of Princess Pev Amri, or “She Who Sleeps But Will One Day Wake.” Edgar’s obsession with this princess leads Lady Enid to explain that “It’s a terrible thing to marry an Egyptologist and find out he’s hung up on his mummy.”

Then Lady Enid makes a horrifying discovery, Lord Edgar admits the hold Irma still has on him, Nicodemus confesses to a desperate love...well, you get the point. This is a campy parody of several different types of melodrama, and if you ever enjoyed The Wolf Man or Rosmersholm, you’ll find lots of coy allusions.


What really makes Irma Vep so successful, though, is the joy McGee and Russell noticeably take in their drag performances. Where drag is concerned, Russell wins the prize: his Lady Enid is so utterly unconvincing as a woman, his/her every appearance is reason for laughter. With a misshapen blonde wig awkwardly topping his very masculine face, and with a bosom so large as to suggest a physical deformity, Russell comes across as no more feminine than Mount Rushmore, and just about as monumental.

Both actors are superb at quick changes of costume and character, sometimes needing only seconds to exit as him and return as her. The actors know that we in the audience are in on the joke, and they acknowledge as much with knowing gestures and facial expressions. There’s a wonderful moment when Lady Enid demands to have a word with Nicodemus – both of whom are played by Russell, making such a dialogue impossible. “Nicodemus can’t come,” says Jane (McGee) with some consternation. Then she asks, as if to change the subject, “Are you fond of Nicodemus?” And Russell answers, “Sometimes I feel that I am Nicodemus. That Nicodemus and I are one and the same person.” This sort of acknowledgment of the masquerade in the course of Ludlam’s dialogue contributes to the deliberate artificiality of Todd Olson’s clever staging.

As directed by Olson, McGee and Russell repeatedly signal that this is only theater, that the women on stage are really men, that the monsters and mummies are only pretend. On Jeffrey W. Dean’s beautifully hokey set — think of the study in a Disney haunted house — and dressed in Adrin Erra Puente’s colorful period costumes, McGee and Russell take this journey with us, nudging us in the ribs every few moments. Call it pastiche, call it post-modern — whatever it is, it works very well.

Until those last 30 minutes, when the fireworks aren’t so novel anymore, and we’ve laughed ourselves out. And Ludlam and Company seem to have run out of ideas.

Oh well. Slight problem.

But on the way there, this show is delectable.

The American Stage production of The Mystery of Irma Vep is such good-natured, silly fun for most of its length, you can almost forget that its last quarter or so is redundant and a trifle tedious. Still, this is a case of too much of a good thing: Matthew McGee and Brian Webb Russell are so hilarious as they romp through Charles Ludlam’s farce, we don’t need a full two hours to feel happy and fulfilled.

The quick changes that have the two actors playing multiple parts, the unexpected appearance of horror figures from an H. P. Lovecraft story, the offhand references to Shakespeare, Ibsen and Hitchcock — all combine to make Irma Vep a winning experience for a good 90 minutes — and then we reach saturation. Cut the last half hour, and this frolic would be just about perfect.

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