First brought to the stage in 1984, The Mystery of Irma Vep is widely believed to be Charles Ludlam’s most well-known and most popular play. The legacy of this truly unique piece of theater is indeed as fascinating as the play itself. In 1991, five years after Ludlam’s death, Irma Vep was the most produced play in the United States. In 2003, it became the longest-running play ever produced in Brazil. The original New York City production featured Ludlam himself and his partner Everett Quinton. Irma Vep blends melodrama, comedy, and supernatural elements including references to vampires and werewolves– all held together with an unapologetically gay sensibility. Rights to perform the play include a stipulation that the actors must be of the same sex, in order to ensure cross-dressing in the production. Considering that two actors play seven roles in a piece which can run over two hours, combined with the play’s fast-moving pace, The Mystery of Irma Vep is indeed a professional challenge for any director and even more for any actor. Both acting roles require many snap-of-the-finger changes in costumes and voice. Thankfully, for both established and neophyte Ludlam fans, as well as audience members with a taste for the “outré”, both director Andy Rogow and actors Bruce Linser and Larry Buzzeo meet that challenge with flying (rainbow flag) colors with Island City Stage’s new production of The Mystery of Irma Vep, now running through July 10, 2022 at Wilton Manors’ Island City Stage.
The setting of Irma Vep is “Mandacrest Estate”, presented in hilariously kitschy detail thanks to Ardean Landhuis’ scenic design. Of course, it’s a dark, windy, and stormy night. The first characters we meet are the mansion’s priggish housekeeper Jane (played by Lisner) and the boorish groundskeeper Nicodemus (played by Buzzeo). In a bit of exposition from the servants, the audience learns that Mandacrest is the home to Egyptologist Lord Edgar Hillcrest (also played by Linser!) and his wife, former stage actress Lady Enid (also played by Buzzeo!). Of course, we meet the Lord and Lady in all their garish pretense soon enough. However, there is a fifth major character floating around the background of this mansion: Irma Vep, Lord Edgar’s first wife who had died three years prior. As a constant reminder of her presence, a huge portrait of the play’s titular character hangs from one of the mansion walls, reminding both the living characters as well as the audience of her omnipresence. If the haunting portrait wasn’t enough, Jane often reminisces about her former boss lady, fawning over her a la Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. The insecure,
slightly very neurotic Lady Enid eventually orders her husband to take the portrait down, much to Jane’s horror. Speaking of horror: In addition to Ghosts of Dead Ladies Past, this mansion of misfits also must deal with a literal wolf at the door… or, more specifically, a werewolf. Is this the same werewolf who may have killed Irma Vep and Lord Edgar’s son a while back? As if that wasn’t enough, Enid gets assaulted by a vampire. Yes, kids: In Ludlam’s universe, there’s never a shortage of exquisite excess…
But back to the late Irma Vep. Just what is her mystery? The playwright, cast, and crew do indeed reward the audience’s quest to find the answer in Act 3– but not before much more high melodrama, campy comedy, supernatural shenanigans, and… a trip to Egypt?! Yes! Act 2 switches the action from Mandacrest to the land of the pyramids, where Lord Edgar and his assistant (also played by Buzzeo!) seek answers to the “stranger things” going on. Edgar briefly resurrects the mummy of a voluptuous Egyptian princess (played by– all together now– Buzzeo!) and brings the sarcophagus (pronounced “Sarco FAG Us”) home with him, as if Mandacrest didn’t have enough tacky ephemera already. Meanwhile, Lady Enid makes a discovery which sets off a chain reaction of uncovered secrets, unraveling Jane’s wisdom at the beginning of the play: “Some things are better left UNSAID!”. Enid, in fact, has a few unsaid things of her own. Think you’ve figured it out? You haven’t even scratched the surface!
As mentioned before, any performer willing to undertake this truly unique piece of theater must excel at both the machine gun-style delivery of Ludlam’s many one-liners, as well as the play’s frenetic physical comedy. Bruce Linser and Larry Buzzeo show superior talent with both– and, best of all, they seem to be really enjoying themselves as much as the audience enjoyed the show. Ludlam’s script is patently campy to the point of being absurd most of the time; the playwright was, after all, the Founder of his own Ridiculous Theatrical Company. The play is loaded with transgenerational pop cultural and literary homages, including a few current references– presumably courtesy of director Andy Rogow. There’s even a monkeypox joke thrown in! (Charles Ludlam may have passed away 12 years before Cher sang “If I could turn back time…!”, but I’d make a safe bet that he would indeed appreciate that lyric being thrown into his piece.) There’s also a generous dose of self-referential humor, occasional audience interaction, plenty of sight gags, and some seemingly intentionally tawdry set pieces and… ahem, “special” effects which really suit the style of the play… or, at least, which honor Ludlam’s original vision while inspiring even more laughs.
The term “straight play” has long been used to describe a play which is not a musical… but The Mystery of Irma Vep is not “straight” in ANY sense of the word! In a piece that boldly and playfully defies both gender and genre, I am going to invent a new term to best describe Ludlam’s enduring classic: Irma Vep is proudly UNstraight.
The Mystery of Irma Vep from Island City Stage plays through July 10, 2022 at the Foundry, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors, FL ; 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 5 p.m. Sun. Running time is two hours and 10 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission. Call (954) 928-9800 or visit www.islandcitystage.org for tickets and more info!
(Photos by Matthew Tippins.)