Peggy Sue Dunigan

The Mystery of Irma Vep

By - Apr 8th, 2008 02:52 pm
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There is pure pleasure in laughter, in comic relief from a long, receding winter, in an evening spent watching two very talented actors revel in their roles. Next Act effortlessly provides this opportunity in their production The Mystery of Irma Vep by Charles Ludlam.

Charles Ludlam founded The Ridiculous Theater Company in 1967, where producing absurd comedy was serious professional business. Combining several classic film and theater genres, staging and lighting effects, borrowed text from other literature, precise stage directing and a measure of Abbott and Costello, Ludlum perfected an original avant-garde theater experience.

After writing numerous plays to unimpressed critics – over 30 during his lifetime – 1984’s The Mystery of Irma Vep garnered Drama Desk and Obie awards for Ludlam and partner Everett Quinton along with a measure of financial success. Tragically, as with many creative professionals during the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic that decimated the arts community claimed Ludlam’s life in 1987.

Fortunately his work remains, with fast-revolving humor revealing impossibly insane characters and plot twists. Two doors in a gothic, wood-paneled study repeatedly open and close with utter efficiency, allowing a pair of actors and a trio of behind-the-scene helpers to expertly recreate the ridiculous.

The eight characters in the play, all performed by John McGivern and Christopher Tarjan incredibly portray Ludlum’s convoluted story, which questions the mysterious death of Egyptologist Lord Edgar Hillcrest’s son and his wife, Irma, after Hillcrest’s remarriage to the actress Lady Enid. Add the spinster housekeeper Jane Twisden, groundskeeper Nicodemus Underwood, a wooden leg, werewolves, secret dungeons and recently discovered Egyptian mummies, and you have hilarious surprises attracting attention every minute.

While the story literally unravels, the skills of McGivern and Tarjan (and their seamless and elaborate costumes changes) hold the audience captive. McGivern delights as a primping and pampered Victorian woman while Tarjon’s fitting partner Lord Edgar responds. The evening accompaniment by Jack Forbes-Wilson as the Mad Gothic Organist transports the action to 1940’s film noir with ominous melodies. This production requires a host of expertise in every area, from David Cecsarini’s direction to stage technicians. The promise of great, difficult comedy demands precision to perform, and Next Act delivers.

As one of the characters in the play so aptly describes, “It’s hard for people to believe in the supernatural, just hard enough to believe in the natural.” The Mystery of Irma Vep combines both – a supernatural story with the natural gifts of these actors and theater performances culminating in an entertaining production. Next Act ridiculously presents the unbelievable on stage so the healing power of laughter in life becomes unequivocally believable to those watching. VS

Next Act presents The Mystery of Irma Vep at The Off-Broadway Theatre on Water Street until May 25. For tickets or information, call 414.278.0765 or visit Next Act online.

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