Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The New Conservatory Theatre Center Production of Irma Vep

Also see Richard's review of Evita

Playwright Charles Ludlam wrote The Mystery of Irma Vep in 1983 for the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and he starred in the leading role. He won the Drama Desk and OBIE awards that year for his performance. Since that time, just about every regional theater in America has presented this two man Victorian "penny dreadful" play. It seems the audience gets a precarious thrill out of watching two men in drag. I have seen five productions since it was first presented in New York. Some have been "dreadful" performances. The New Conservatory Theatre Center production of Irma Vep ranks as one of the best productions I have seen of Mr. Ludlam's farce. This is due to the fact that NCTC has two of their best actors taking on the various roles of the play. Patrick Michael Dukeman and Lee Corbett are very campy and each gives a marvelous tour de force of quick change inventiveness.

The Mystery of Irma Vep is part gothic melodrama and part old English vaudeville. It opens in the spooky drawing room of a Victorian manor around the turn of the 20th century. The manor is called Manderley, a direct reference to the house in the film Rebecca (in fact much of the first act is a parody of the film with Lee Corbett playing the Mrs. Danvers role as the sinister housekeeper and Patrick Dukeman playing the role of innocent Rebecca). Lord Edgar Hillcrest, also played by Mr. Corbett, has just married Lady Enid, played by Patrick. The late Lady Irma Vep has recently died under mysterious circumstances. The housekeeper is not happy that someone is taking the place of Lady Irma.

There are some wonderful sight gags and literary allusions, not only to Rebecca, but also to Wuthering Heights and The Mummy's Curse. There is also a wonderful performance by Mr. Dukeman as the wooden-legged butler, Nicodemus. Lee Corbitt puts a little bit of Bette Davis in Jane Twisden, the housekeeper. The two actors play well against each other. Nicodemus is full of malapropisms and Jane is well educated because she has read Pilgrim's Progress from cover to cover. There are many classic lines that only Mr. Ludlam could have penned. When Jane says, "The dress is full of nostalgia," Nicodemus replies, "You could have it cleaned." When the housekeeper explains that Lady Enid, "has got trouble with insomnia," the butler replies, "Can't remember a thing, eh?"

There is a brilliant first scene in the second act that takes place in a deep, dark and dank Egyptian tomb where Patrick becomes Alcazar the Egyptian guide and a wild and campy princess who suddenly comes alive for a few months. He is priceless as the resurrected princess and he brings down the house with pure camp and fractured Egyptian.

The musical background is wonderful. It's a mixture of music from Universal and Paramount classic horror films with a little of Bernard Herrmann's Psycho thrown in. Rob Vogt's set of the spooky house is top drawer, with fog coming in at proper intervals. Arturo Catricala's direction is tight and crisp, and lighting by Jared Hirsch is extraordinary. The timing is right on the mark and the quick costume changes are beautifully executed. This is a fun evening.

The Mystery of Irma Vep runs through February 23 at the NCTC on Van Ness just off Market. Tickets range from $18 to $28 and are available at the box office phone (415)861-8979 and on line at For more information check their website at

The World Premier of Hal Corley's Legion opens at NCTC's other theatre in the complex on February 2nd. You can call the above number for tickets to that production.

Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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