Two Much The Mystery of Irma Vep delivers laughs, surprises, and reams of frilly dresses
By Bret McCabe | Baltimore City Paper
In short: Everyman Theater’s current production of Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep is the most fun you can have indoors right now without having to go to confession immediately afterward. Under the direction of Everett Quinton, the late Ludlam’s creative and life partner who performed in Irma Vep’s 1984 debut by the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, this production is a nonstop laugh-fest peppered by invasions of the paranormal, shots fired in the dark, bleeding paintings, dueling dulcimers, an offstage camel, hidden rooms, and tales of bloody carnage so riotously dramatic you’re not sure to laugh or cringe. (Actually, you can’t help laughing.) And steering this entire ship of foolishness are two actors bringing to vibrant life seven characters over three acts. It’s a pair of athletic performances that make you feel like you’ve just survived nearly two hours of hot yoga…
Keeping this madcap comedy chugging along are Nelson and Brandhagen, who often sprint from one character to another. Each actor finds a way to give each of their characters identifiable voices, walks, mannerisms, and, miraculously, senses of humor. Brandhagen is a touch spinster/marmish as Jane and Robert Donat-dashing as Lord Edgar, and Nelson moves from being Lady Enid the timid lass one moment and caterwauling Nicodemus the next, a man who feels dug up from a Charles Dickens novel. In fact, at one point Nelson pulls off the acrobatic feat of a conversation between Lady Enid and Nicodemus. That’s one of many, many instances where the sheer physical rigor required to realize the play becomes a part of the experience itself, and such a laughing-because-it’s-just-funny moment on opening night led to a near riotous pause where Nelson’s delivery made Brandhagen almost imperceptibly stifle the urge to laugh.
Such is the peril of delivering this joyously absurd farce so well: the jokes and wit come in such ceaseless waves that there’s nary a chance to catch your breath.
Does the whole thing make believable sense? Not even the faintest lick—but neither does an episode of The Simpsons, an example of the sort of zinging comedy that Irma Vep pulls off. Of course, that’s an animated program created by teams of writers, artists, and actors. Irma Vep stirs up that level of anarchy live onstage, in a highly choreographed production spotlighting two men running an acting triathlon.
Plenty of laughs, camp in ‘Mystery’
By Tim Smith | Baltimore Sun
The only mystery in “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is how the two actors who dash, hop, limp and swirl through the Everyman Theatre staging of Charles Ludlam’s inventive and amusing play are still standing at the end.
Portraying at least three characters apiece, and with gender-crossing ease, the duo of Clinton Brandhagen and Bruce R. Nelson plugs tightly into the crazed world that Ludlam fashioned in 1984. His play, slyly subtitled “a penny dreadful,” contains varying amounts of Victorian melodrama, Gothic horror, vaudeville, Hollywood, and maybe even a little of “The Carol Burnett Show.”
“Irma Vep” enjoyed an original two-year run off-off-Broadway by Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, with the playwright and his partner, Everett Quinton, tackling the multiple roles. Since Ludlam’s untimely death in 1987, Quinton has continued to be closely associated with the play, both as a performer (he starred in and produced the award-winning off-Broadway revival in 1998) and, as in the case of this Everyman production, director.
Quinton has Brandhagen and Nelson weathering heights of camp with panache. The greater your appreciation for campiness, the more laughs per minute you’ll enjoy, but that’s hardly the only element; Ludlam was much too clever to confine himself to a target audience. With “Irma Vep,” he cast a wide net for comic potential and reeled in a plot that just keeps on giving.
The two cast members, supported by a hardworking backstage crew, reveal equally remarkable flair for creating totally distinct characterizations, and bouncing between them in seemingly effortless fashion.
Brandhagen deftly reveals Jane to be a wonderfully prim, but combustible, creature; his Lord Edgar is at once suave, vulnerable and slightly dim.
Both men prove admirably adept as quick-change artists, and Nelson makes the most of a scene that requires him to be two characters at once onstage.
At the speed this show moves, there’s always the chance that something will go slightly astray, but count on Brandhagen and Nelson to know how to capitalize on the unexpected for an extra laugh. (On opening night, the actors came close to breaking each other up, but that only added to the fun.)
Review: The Mystery of Irma Vep
by Daniel Collins | Broadway World
Vaudeville, Wikipedia tells us, brought “musicians, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators,” acrobats, athletes and more, to the stage. Vaudeville was the land of slapstick comedy, of burlesque, of one-liners, bad puns and the art of the “quick change,” as players tumbled in and out of costumes as they raced back and forth on the stage from one bit to the next.
Vaudeville died in the 1930s, killed by television and movies, but occasionally we see the spirit of this madcap form of entertainment, alive and well, in plays like the late Charles Ludlam’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep” now at Baltimore’s Everyman Theater.
“The Mystery of Irma Vep” is directed by Everett Quinton, Ludlam’s life partner, who also performed in the first ever production of this comic farce, written in 1984, and it shows, as Quinton does a masterful job in making this “penny dreadful”-a British term for a melodramatic “dime novel”- priceless entertainment.
He’s helped considerably by the acting talents of the 2-man cast, Bruce R. Nelson (Lady Enid, Nicodemus, Alcazar) and Clinton Brandhagen (Jane Twisdon, Lord Edgar, An Intruder) who served this silly salmagundi of werewolves, vampires, mummies, and ghosts to a more than appreciative audience last Friday night.
Nelson, a staple at the Everyman, is, in one moment, the fair, young bride of Lord Edgar, all blonde tresses, swishing satin, tremulous lips and clasping hands, and the next, the peg-legged Nicodemus, bald, bad teeth, Cockney accent, he’s Smike from “Nicholas Nickelby” all grown up. Later in the play he becomes Egyptian treasure hunter Alcazar, pulling a camel we never see, and struggling with the word “sarcophagus” which he pronounces “sar-car-PHAG-us.”
Nelson demonstrates a range of talent rarely seen on the stage, as few actors have the ability to play two characters simultaneously. With a little help from the backstage crew, Nelson holds a hilarious conversation between Lady Enid and Nicodemus, even as the latter is transforming into a werewolf.
Brandhagen matches Nelson in his ability to become the right and proper maid servant Jane one minute, and the stalwart, pit-helmeted Lord Edgar the next to a mad Mr. Hyde-esque intruder who may be a vampire seconds later. Both Brandhagen and Nelson demonstrate near athletic ability in their swift moves on and off the stage, wigs askew, sweat profuse, but never missing a cue, accents just right, mannerisms distinct from character to character–one imagines the actors must lose 10 pounds with each performance!
If vaudeville is the realm of “musicians, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators,” this production is a fitting homage, as we have Lady Enid and Jane playing dueling dulcimers, we have actors trading comic puns (and for one point in the play, a Harvey Korman-breaks-up-at-Tim-Conway moment), we have a stuffed “dead” wolf, a werewolf, some magical special effects, and two men playing six characters, including two women.
The influence of Gothic horror tales by Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, works like Wuthering Heights, Hitchcock’s flim “Rebecca” (a haunted portrait of Lady Irma comes to life) are all seen in this play which even features a bit of voodoo and “the curse of the Druids.” At play’s end, Lady Enid reflects, “Somehow it just doesn’t make sense,” but then again, it’s not supposed to, any more than an episode of “Family Guy” is supposed to “make sense.” With “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” leave reason behind and prepare, as artistic director Vincent Lancisi told the audience, for some really big laughs.