Horror The Campy Way In ‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’

First produced in 1984 and written by pioneering queer playwright Charles Ludlam, this witty script is specifically designed for only two actors despite the fact that it features four principal charactersand that’s before you count any of their werewolf, vampire, or mummy alter egos! 

To ensure cross dressing, the script also specifies that these actors must be of the same sex, and Island City Stage’s production naturally obliges. Bruce Linser is both Lord Edgar, man of the spooky house where the play takes place, and his uptight and mysterious maid Jane, while Larry Buzzeo must continually metamorphose from low-class swineherd Nicodermus to Lady Enid, Edgar’s demure new wife. As guided by director Andy Rogow, both performers have a great grasp of the comedic timing and specificity of character necessary to pull off such a fast-paced farce, as well as plenty of innate charisma and chemistry. 

Though both actors also adeptly differentiate their multiple roles with distinct accents and mannerisms, the play’s central charade is still pretty obvious, with much of the show’s humor thus coming from the impressively quick character-and-costume-changes that each actor must make multiple times over the course of each hour-long act. Rather than try to disguise these frequent change-overs, the script makes continual sly winks at them, culminating in a hilarious sequence featuring some admirable stage trickery that allows two characters to “appear” at the same time.

‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’ Larry Buzzeo and Bruce Linser (Photo by Matthew Tippins)

The play’s plot centers on the characters’ efforts to unearth the truth about the tragic death of the titular character, Edgar’s first wife Irma Vep. Signs that her memory is literally as well as figuratively haunting the household emerge throughout the first act, as do signs that other supernatural business may be afoot. This inspires Edgar to take a slapstick trip to Egypt in search of answers at the beginning of Act 2, leading into a conclusion back on the home front that reveals allbut turns deadly. 

Though these proceedings are suspenseful enough to keep the audience engaged, any drama that might emerge from the story’s high stakes is eclipsed by its consummately campy and tongue in cheek tone. While you thus may not find any great emotional or intellectual revelations or even particularly coherent storytelling in Ludlow’s script, you will find an abundance of high comedy, involving a plethora of puns, literary references, and raunchy double entendres. 

‘The Mystery of Irma Vep’ Bruce Linser and Larry Buzzeo (Photo by Matthew Tippins)

Most of the play’s jokes are also relatively timeless despite the fact that it originated almost 40 years ago, but any reference that has become obscure is accounted for by the simple tweak of one character breaking the fourth wall and suggesting we “Google it” ourselves, one of a few clever modern updates that enliven the proceedings. 

Scenic and lighting design by Ardean Landhuis and costumes borrowed from the Lyric Theatre and supervised by W. Emile White also work to help create the play’s eerie period atmosphere, and the play’s technical team also deserves quite a lot of credit for keeping all of its identity-swapping hijinks in working order. The end result of all this tomfoolery is a near non-stop flow of laughs and a remarkably entertaining production, which you can catch at Island City Stage only until this July 10!

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