The Mystery of Irma Vep, written by Charles Ludlam and performed by Intiman Theatre, centers on the Mandacrest estate in some nondescript Victorian setting, haunted by the recently-passed ghost of resident Lord Edgar’s former mistress as he attempts to move on with his second wife Lady Enid. There are mummies, werewolves, mistaken identities, and plenty of campy comedy to go around as only two actors perform a series of quick costume changes to portray the colorful cast of characters.
From a technical standpoint, the performers—Jesse Calixto and Helen Roundhill—pulled off the production near-flawlessly. The only unintentional slips I could discern were a few misalignments with sound effects and a brief hesitation in dialogue, both of which I qualify as the lowest form of nitpicking possible for a performance of any kind. In every other sense the night ran flawlessly as far as I could tell, the advertised 35 quick costume changes working seamlessly as characters deftly left and entered stages with mere seconds (and often, off-stage line deliveries) to do brisk wardrobe switch-ups. I expected to keenly notice the fact that only two characters could share the stage at once, but I scarcely considered that fact, a testament to the playwriting and both actors’ nearly flawless deliveries.
The comedy of the play is also to be acknowledged, I found myself doubled over laughing many times along with the rest of the audience. Sure, there are moments where the play leans hard into its satirical overtones that were brilliantly humorous in their own right, but I was also astonished by how plainly funny the entire experience was. The situational comedy woven in was excellent, from deliberate stage directions and actions, to body language and line delivery separate from dialogue and actions, to pure comedic timing, to the obvious levels of meta commentary brought about by its concept as a two-person satire on Victorian melodrama and penny dreadfuls—situational comedy with scenes in which two characters played by the same actor would interact, partly obscured by a curtain to allow rapid partial costume changes, and meta humor with various smaller jokes such as inconvenient dramatically-timed thunderclaps.
There were a handful of clearly modern additions that ended up becoming a mixed bag. The Star Wars references—a Han Solo carbonite sarcophagus and Princess Leia costume thrown in—in the Ancient Egyptian tomb scene were hilarious and understated enough, and I can live with the interlude where the two performers sing and pluck guitars to the tune of Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose.” The main place I feel these additions faltered was a scene change from the Egyptian tomb back to the Mandacrest estate, where a theoretically funny compilation of often-irrelevant action adventure movies to the tune of the main theme of Indiana Jones way overstayed its welcome. A way I found to gauge how long a “satirical romp to the tune of the Indiana Jones Theme Song” should last, at maximum, is until the romantic part of the song begins at 2:08; this interlude lasted over four minutes from what I could tell.
The plot itself isn’t anything to write home about, being a deliberately convoluted satire on a played-out genre. With the interweaving of so many different fantasy monsters—ghouls, vampires, werewolves, mummies—the play feels like things are constantly being thrown into the mix until about three-quarters through the runtime. The final quarter is thus chaotic and the ending feels abrupt, with Lord Edgar and Lady Enid delivering a series of heartfelt confessions/exposition dumps to tie up the remaining loose ends, though it still leaves questions by the end: an entire subplot of Lady Enid gaining supernatural powers after being bitten by a ghoul is left unresolved, and I never did understand the significance of the Egyptian princess romp, however much fun it was. That being said, these “flaws” are appropriately handled as stereotypes of the genres Irma Vep pokes fun at, so they work in service of the play.
Also, I did want to highlight the excellent ASL communicators on the left side of the stage, something Intiman does every Friday. As to their accuracy I cannot vouch, since I do not know the language, but they maintained the character of the original performances and seemed to add their own details as well, which I think is a neat consideration for Deaf people.
There’s an aspect that the modern production of Irma Vep goes on record to take care with this play, born out of the Theatre of the Ridiculous movement’s embrace of what 1950’s society deemed “ridiculous,” namely cross-dressing, drag, camp, and other staples of queer culture. This play embraces “what the normies would deem unrealistic and confusing,” in the words of Director Jasmine Joshua. However, a notion to consider is that, much like other works inspired by the same movement such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, there is room for such an iconic piece of queer media to now be dated and even harmful without its historical context. The modern portrayal of The Mystery of Irma Vep serves as an acknowledgement of that potential harm, analyzing where exactly the humor comes from—satire of absurd gender norms against a modern understanding of the social construct, as opposed to making fun of “a man in a dress”—and changing jokes to laugh at said ludicrous constructs instead of those oppressed by them. Most sensitive sections—particularly regarding Lady Enid played by Calixto and Lord Edgar played by Roundhill, male and nonbinary respectively—were focused on delivery rather than revamping the script. Some parts saw edits (with permission from the Ludlam Estate) with modern input, such as the Egyptian excursion section that saw significant changes under the eyes of dramaturgs of Middle Eastern descent. I cannot speak to the widespread effect of these changes, especially having never seen the play in its original state, but personally, as a queer person myself, the changes felt appropriate and the play respectful enough given its contemporaries’ poor aging.
The Mystery of Irma Vep is an entirely fun experience through and through, delivering its premise with spades more to spare in the humor department. On top of that, it is a remarkable example of queer art as a window into a movement satirizing a long-past time, modernized for an audience with decades more development and history under our belts. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s a wonderful time with scathing social commentary under its uproarious surface. For such a piece, that’s all I can possibly ask for.