* Written by Charles Ludlam * Directed by Everett Quinton * Starring Everett Quinton and Stephen DeRosa * Westside Theatre, New York City

The prospect of reviving *The Mystery of Irma Vep* seemed, in advance, a treacherous one. Many New Yorkers still have fond memories of the 1984 original production, a long-running hit show for the Ridiculous Theatrical Company that became a commercial bonanza for writer/director/star Charles Ludlam, a certified Off-Off-Broadway genius who’d never made big bucks from his work before. Although Ludlam was legendary for his drag performances in the title role of *Camille* and as the Callas-like diva in *Galas*, most of his 29 plays were erudite comic pastiches of various literary genres (from fairy tales to science fiction) that rarely attracted mainstream audiences. With *Irma Vep*, however, he cooked up a crowd-pleaser that openly stole from Gothic romances, horror stories, and centuries-old Grand Guignol shock-theater devices. What made it A-plus entertainment, though, was that he and his longtime lover Everett Quinton played all the parts -- lords and ladies, werewolves and mummies -- in a hilarious frenzy of quick-change artistry. The original production was essentially a tribute to their close-knit partnership, which ended with Ludlam’s death in 1987, one of the theater world’s most devastating AIDS casualties.

Quinton valiantly kept the Ridiculous going for another ten years, until the company was forced to give up its theater and suspend production. Now he has directed a revival of *Irma Vep*, backed by major commercial Off-Broadway producers, with himself playing Ludlam’s roles and the extremely talented newcomer Stephen DeRosa as his sparring partner. The first thing to be said is that the production, designed by a dream team of Broadway designers -- John Lee Beatty (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes), and Paul Gallo (lighting) -- looks like a million bucks. Secondly, Quinton is such a different performer that you stop thinking about Ludlam as soon as the show begins. Ludlam was a formidable talent steeped in classical literature and performance who could descend into camp and low comedy to get the effect he wanted and then return to dramatic heights. With Quinton, forget the heights. He’s a vaudevillean with a broader, coarser style. If Ludlam was Gable and Lombard, Quinton is more Three Stooges. Less elegant, absolutely, but still plenty of nyuk-nyuk-nyuk for your buck.

Clumping offstage as the bald, gnarly-toothed, wooden-legged manservant Nicodemus and then gliding back on in Scarlett O’Hara cast-offs as Lady Enid Hillcrest, Quinton clearly relishes the opportunity to show off the results of a lifetime of making faces in the mirror. Meanwhile, as the tweedy Egyptologist Lord Edgar Hillcrest who doubles as starchy Jane Twisden, still devoted to the former Lady Hillcrest (the title’s mysterious Irma Vep), DeRosa wisely sticks to a simple sweetness. With both actors clowning it up, the show would have been a nightmare of mugging. But Quinton’s broadness and DeRosa’s delicacy make them fun to watch.

Ludlam’s script possesses a sly postmodern self-consciousness. “He’ll never change,” says Jane of the departing Nicodemus, seconds before the actor reappears in Lady Enid drag. This aspect of the picture pointing to the frame goes by the wayside in the more slapsticky new production. Still, Quinton’s direction is sufficiently attentive to the hoary conventions of Grand Guignol. For all the giggles, the show made chills run down my spine more than once.

The Advocate, November 10, 1998

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