Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Mystery of Irma Vep a Delirious Lampoon of a Gothic Thriller

Also see Richard's reviews of After the Fall and Antigone Falun Gong

Arnie Burton as Lady Enid and Erik Steele as
Lord Edgar

Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting Charles Ludlam's outrageously theatrical cult classic The Mystery of Irma Vep on their Thrust stage. This two actor, tour de force, quick change comedy has probably played in every regional theater in this country and the UK since it was first presented by the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1984. I have seen this farce at least ten times over the years; some productions were excellent and some missed the mark completely. The best of these occurred at the New Ambassador Theatre in London in 1990 with Nicholas Grace playing one of the two characters. Dan Hiatt was also hilarious in the Eureka Theatre production in '87 and just two years ago the New Conservatory Theatre Center presented a wonderful production with Patrick Dukeman and Lee Corbett (see review in archives).

Irma Vep is a delicious put-on of the Victorian gothic thrillers which were called "penny dreadfuls" in the late 19th century. It's a wacky blend of The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Mummy's Curseand Curse of the Werewolf . Even the Selnick classic Rebecca is knocked about with the name of the estate called Mandacrest and a housekeeper who acts like Judith Anderson.

Irma Vep begins in the drawing room of a Victorian mansion with a large "painting" of Lady Irma Hillcrest over the first place. She looks like a sinister figure from a Universal horror film. Jane Twisden (Erik Steele), the menacing housekeeper, mourns the loss of the first Lady of the manor and she has no love for the new mistress, Lady Enid (Arnie Burton). Peg-legged randy houseboy Nicodemus (Arnie Burton) is hot for the housekeeper, and head of the manor Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Arnie Burton) is still mysterious about the death of his first wife. He also has a great interest in Egyptology which becomes the center of the hilarious second act.

After these introductions, we see a vampire, a mummy, a werewolf, much fog and blood coming from the big portrait, the howling of wolves, thunder, lightning - all in this fast paced one hour and 50 minute three act production. There are zingers and groaners with pure camp readings of the words of Poe, Shakespeare and the even the proper Bonte sisters. The timing is perfect and two amazing New York actors zip on and off stage changing their roles with amazing speed.

Arnie Burton and Erik Steele are superb in their roles and they are never at a loss for a bit of ingenuity to put across a gag, a zinger and those wonderful groaners. Burton (Off Broadway as Brad in Last Sunday in June plus appearances in the Off Broadway production of Mere Mortals) plays Lady Enid, Nicodemus and the decadent Egyptian mummy smuggler in the wild second act. His Nicodemus is straight from Long John Silver in Treasure Island. I half expected to see him with a parrot perched on his shoulder. The heavy Yorkshire brogue is silliness at its best. His portrayal of the new wife of the Lord of the manor is priceless; he plays her like one of those great ladies of the stage in '30s, like a young Ethel Barrymore. There is a certain Kate Hepburn in Stage Door about his acting (if only there were calla lilies in the drawing room). The piece de resistance of is his portrayal of the Egyptian tomb crawler with a touch of fey about his strange speech. His pronunciation of the word "sarcophagus" is wonderful.

Erik Steele (who appeared on Broadway in Tartuffe and Off Broadway in Hedda Gabler and Bloody Poetry) shines as the ominous housekeeper Jane, a parody of the Judith Anderson performance in the film Rebecca. His facial expressions, like the arch of his eyebrow and a wonderful tick of his face, are sublime. He is so deadly earnest in the character that it is silliness at its best. The exaggerated movements of both are side splitting.

Irma Vep is presented in the beautifully detailed set of a drawing room in a country manor with the large disturbing painting of the first lady who mysteriously died (or did she?) dominating the room. Annie Smart's set smacks of the gothic with its dark paneled walls, and large, heavy, wooden doors. There are even two white tiger rugs on the floor. Fog comes in from the moors at certain intervals and some very good special effects are used in this production.

The Mystery of Irma Vep runs at the Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley through May 23rd. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or 888-4BRTTix. Or

Their next production is Rita Moreno in Terrence McNally's Master Class, which opens on May 21 and runs through July 16.

Photo: Kevin Berne

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

- Richard Connema

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