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The Mystery of Irma Vep

a Satire
by Charles Ludlum

COMPANY : The New American Shakespeare Tavern [WEBSITE]
VENUE : The New American Shakespeare Tavern [WEBSITE]
ID# 3409

SHOWING : June 04, 2009 - July 05, 2009



Ludlum's most famous play is a hilarious send-up of Daphne de Maurier, Jane Eyre and Victorian cross-dressing.

Lady Enid has come to Mandacrest as the new wife of Lord Edgar Hillcrest, unaware of the tragedy that befell his first wife, Lady Irma. She must command all her resources to battle the curse of werewolves, vampires and even an Egyptian mummy brought back to life, if she is to secure a happy future for her husband and herself.

Director Heidi Cline
Scenic and Costume design Isabel curley-clay
Scenic and Costume design Moriah curley-clay
Production Stage Manager Cindy Kearns
Assistant Stage Manager Deborah McGriff
Pianist S. Renee Clark
Various Dolph Amick
Various Jeff McKerley
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production


Harmless fun
by uppermiddlebrow
Friday, June 19, 2009
The Shakespeare Tavern's Irma Vep is an extended Monty Python sketch, well played by comic actors Jeff McKerley and Dolf Amick. The guys are likeable, versatile and funny actors, pros at quick changes and physical humor. Vep's send-up of mediocre books, plays and films of the country estate / Egyptology / melodrama bent is amusing stuff. Someone - maybe Ludlam, maybe Cline and McKerley, it matters little - has even thrown in some of Shakespeare's purple passages to add heft to the send-up for a Shakespeare-oriented audience. Irma's set transforms the Tavern's usual backdrop to pick up every drawing-room comedy cliche.

This is light entertainment for people with the sense of humor that goes for skits, poking fun at worn-out convention, cross-dressing, musical jokes, bad puns and general silliness. It's not going to win any awards for profundity of insight. For all but the most dedicated Python fan, two hours of this is more than enough of a good thing. But on a hot summer night, what else are you going to do? [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
Desperate measures
by Dedalus
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
In her program “Director’s Notes” for the Shakespeare Taverns frantic mounting of “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” director Heidi Cline writes that “… even in the most heightened comedy, there must be truth and a heartbeat of real life to hold on to.” I agree completely. Unfortunately, that is precisely what is missing from this production.

Charles Ludlam’s comedy, described as a “gothic romp on the theme of eternal love,” essentially takes Daphne DuMaurier’s “Rebecca” plot and tosses it into a cuisinart with Monster Movie tropes (ALL of them) and flavors it with a ridiculous sense of the absurd and a lot of drag comedy. When this play works (and I have seen two prior productions that did), it is a gaily hysterical laughfest performed by two actors in a marathon of fast changes and seemingly effortless character switches.

In the Tavern’s production, Jeff McKerley and Dolph Amick desperately pull out everything from their gag bags – they mug, they fall, they grimace, they flash, they schtick, and they even sing. What neither of them do is act. I didn’t see one moment in the over-long two-and-a-half-hour marathon that resembled anything or anybody real or remotely human. Rather than touching the sublime ridiculousness of the concept, the efforts on display smacked of desperation. Worse, we could see the effort, the sweat – “fast changes” were too slow and noisy, with the lone actor on stage “vamping” to kill time, and the result was often askew, unbuttoned, and sloppy. There was a moment in Act Two, granted, where Mr. McKerley was able to quickly go from Stage Left to Stage Right as two different characters in a heartbeat, but this only showed the “should have beens” I expected throughout.

This is a difficult show to pull off, and the late Mr. Ludlam, in my opinion, didn’t make it easy – did he really need to include mummies, vampires, werewolves, AND zombies? The Act Two sojourn to Egypt sometimes strikes me as pointless “padding,” and the Act One “Intruder” scene is seemingly forgotten until the very end. Still, when performed with wit and apparent effortlessness, these problems can be surmounted, as we saw eight years ago in Actor’s Express zippy production. Here, the Egypt sequence goes on far too long, and the show stops absolutely dead to change the set back to “Mandercrest.”

I do have to commend the set designers here (Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay) for creating a believably tacky country estate in front of the Tavern’s permanent fixtures. The mid-Act Two change is tightly choreographed and clever, but, we are still stuck for a too-long stretch watching a lot of people move around furniture and scenery.

Which brings me to my next point – is this an appropriate show for this venue? Normally, a set-heavy show such as this would be reconceived and adapted for the space. I have difficulty coming up with a workable concept to do that with this show (though I daresay those more creative than I probably could). Still, no such attempt was made here, and it was done “straight” (so to speak). On the other hand, the Tavern’s usual break-the-fourth-wall style was very much in evidence, and I don’t think it served this play particularly well. The nudge-nudge-wink-wink asides to the audience were too distracting, reminding us too much that what we are seeing is pure artifice (and not the good kind). This is the first time I’ve not found the late-in-the-play character confusion of Lady Enid and Nicodemus particularly amusing, and that was chiefly because of Mr. McKerley’s mugging at the time. Real confusion is funny. The performer reminding us that he is playing both roles is not.

I also have to give credit (begrudgingly) to composer and pianist Renee Clark. She sits at the keyboard and plays throughout the entire play, sometimes even interacting with the performers, and it is an impressive achievement. Unfortunately, though, I don’t think it was especially effective. It’s not like we’re watching a silent movie, so does every moment of the play require underscoring? For too much of the time, I found it distracting.

If you’ve never seen this show before, you will probably find it enjoyable and often funny, though never in a stop-the-show-to-wait-for-laughs way, and much (not all) of the audience I was with had a good time. But, if you come with any expectations, I’m afraid you’ll be as disappointed as I found myself to me. Mr. McKerley’s schtick is very familiar (and his stock gestures too often carry over from character to character), and amusing, but I’m beginning to find it a bit stale. Mr. Amick, similarly, seems more interested in creating “bits” than in creating characters. The show, as a whole, really needs to tighten its pace, but, more important, these two need to remember to act. Remember acting? I know they can do it (they have before). Perhaps a reminder from Hamlet himself is in order:

O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, that have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably. Reform it altogether! And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered.

Indeed, in the rush for laughs, exposition and story were too often left in the dust. Granted, the plot of the “Irma Vep” is ridiculous and over-the-top. But to make it work, we have to find a thread of humanity that we recognize. Otherwise, we’re watching desperate clowns clowning desperately. And desperation is for farce, not for parody.

-- Brad Rudy (

What a drag
by OctoberSundance
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
It’s happened to every avid theatergoer at one time or another: you’re sitting in the audience and witnessing a tour de force. Everything – the script, the acting, the set, the costumes, even the sound effects – is pitch-perfect. The curtain falls for intermission and you anxiously count down the minutes until act two, hoping to be swept right back up in the magic. But bliss quickly becomes disappointment when the play suddenly seems to veer off course, throwing in implausible twists and causing characters to behave irrationally. Few things are more disappointing than a production that doesn’t live up to its promise or hype.

"The Mystery of Irma Vep" suffers from the opposite problem; the second act is considerably better than the first. It’s hard to give another chance to a play when you spend its intermission glancing back and forth between the playbill and your car keys, but try to look past the relatively uninspired first half. The storyline improves and the laughs come more frequently, but the show never quite redeems itself.

The final production of the Tavern’s season is a last-minute replacement for the originally scheduled "A Little Night Music." It stars a pair of beloved local comedians and boasts two exotic settings, eight characters and no fewer than 40 elaborate costumes. The script, however, reads as though Charles Ludlum wrote it for an Ed Wood-helmed film version of "Rebecca." It was first produced in Greenwich Village (figures!) in the mid-1980s, but feels more like something penned in the ‘40s or ‘50s, when its primary comedic elements – slapstick, double entendre – were considered cutting-edge and hilarious.

Dolph Amick and Jeff McKerley are Lord Edgar Hillcrest and his wife Lady Enid, respectively. They reside at Mandacrest, an English estate with a one-legged groundskeeper, Nicodemus Underwood (McKerley), and a diabolical maid, Mrs. Danvers . . . er, Jane Twisden (Amick). This is, in part, a drag show, and both actors tackle their garters and wigs with varying degrees of authenticity. The plot revolves around the mysterious death of Lord Edgar’s first wife, Irma Vep, which apparently occurred at the hands/paws of a werewolf. Edgar craves vengeance, while the eccentric Lady Enid simply hopes to become a suitable replacement, much to Jane’s disdain.

Classic literature is mashed up with mythology (rearrange the letters in “Irma Vep” and they spell “vampire” – OMG!) to create a story with lots of shrieking and not much substance. In addition to bloodsuckers and werewolves, the second act involves a detour to Egypt so Lord Edgar can awaken a busty female mummy (McKerley) whose first moments of resurrection are spent engaged in an entirely-too-long dance to Pink’s “Get the Party Started.” (So much for Original Practice.) Still, the actors manage to mine some comedy from the script and seem to have the time of their lives in the process. McKerley is in his element, soaking up the attention as he flounces and pratfalls his way across the stage. Amick’s characters are slightly more subdued, but his facial expressions and unshakable bravado, not to mention his chemistry with his costar, make him fun to watch as well.

However, the true star of this show is Renee Clark. She doesn’t have a single line, but her incredible piano playing – and she plays for virtually the entire two hours – lends heavily to the B-movie feel for which director Heidi Cline was undoubtedly aiming. Besides occasionally appeasing a sobbing Lady Enid, Ms. Clark provides a magical element to the production, and it would be sorely lacking without her music.

Yes, "Irma Vep" is supposed to be satire. Flubbed lines, bad puns and creatures of the night are acceptable in this genre. Shooting an impatient look to the control booth when a sound effect isn’t in sync with an actor’s movements may even be considered charming in the world of satire. But McKerley and Amick may as well be onstage yelling to the audience, “We’ve just ripped you out of the play! None of this is real! Don’t buy it – we certainly aren’t!”

Shakespeare wasn’t considered highbrow in his day, and humor-wise, his shticks probably aren’t terribly different from the ones employed here. But something about "Irma Vep" rings hollow. To use an overdone metaphor (in keeping with the play’s air of datedness), watching it is the equivalent of eating candy for dinner instead of the Tavern’s shepherd’s pie. It’s cute and fun for a while, but afterward you walk away feeling hungry. There is nothing on which to reflect. It’s pure escapism, but it doesn’t even manage to fully succeed at that. And after a steady season-long diet of Chaucer, Marlowe, Dickens and the Bard, the audience expects, demands and deserves more. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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