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The Mystery of Irma Vep

Gay Camp Weds Gothic Romance

Swimming in references to Poe, Joyce, Shakespeare, and the Brontė Sisters, The Mystery of Irma Vep, which is now enjoying the stage at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is a 'penny dreadful': a lampoon of the 19th century melodrama. Irma Vep is the vaudevillian tour-de-force that launched writer / director / performer Charles Ludlam and his Ridiculous Theatrical Company into camp renown back in 1984. It's an unabashed, madcap pastiche of The Mummy's Curse, Abbot and Costello Meet the Wolfman, and David O. Selznick's Rebecca, which is wryly knocked about. Peppered with Victorian melodrama, Gothic romance, and film and literary allusions, the play surpasses slapstick comedy with its delicious parody of the cultural genres that created the monster.

The curtain opens on the drawing room of Mandacrest, the moor-swept estate to which the Egyptologist Lord Edgar Hillcrest has whisked his new bride Lady Enid. Of course, it's a dark and stormy night, and the foreboding portrait of Lord Edgar's widow Irma Vep, which dangles gloomily above the mantel, clues the audience in to subsequent calamities. Bosomy housekeeper Jane Twisden (played by Erik Steele) commiserates about her former mistress's loss with the randy wooden-legged butler, Nicodemus Underwood (played by Arnie Burton). The conversation bubbles with exaggerated brogues, double entendres and colloquial banter. Nicodemus makes his exit, and- ta-da!- Lady Enid (also played by Burton) sashays into the room like a 1930s film goddess with her platinum bob and unrelenting grin. As she waits for Lord Edgar (played by Steele- here comes the smile of comprehension), a dandy in knickers and ascot, we learn of his mysterious widow's peculiar demise. The plot quickly gives way to werewolves, vampires, and ancient Egyptian lore. The two actors switch frenetically from character to character, gender to gender- and nobody is who he or she appears to be. Ghastly secrets are revealed with thunderclaps, lightning flashes and the ill-omened screech of creaking hinges.

The requisite campiness stems as much from the classic melodrama the play affects as it does from the drag-laden, Greenwich Village approach of the man who conceived it. Ludlam wrote Irma Vep specifically to highlight the talents of his exuberant yet mediocre lover Everett Quinton, and as co-star, spent every waking moment with him. Steele and Burton zip effortlessly through a half-dozen roles and magnificently keep the satire afloat with comic deadpan and self-reflexive references to the tradition of theatrical gender-bending (Lady Enid saucily muses, "Well, any man who dresses up as a woman can't be all baaaaad."). An unfaltering procession of speedy entrances and exits makes one mistakenly believe that there are at least four actors; Burton and Steele never lose their cool, and not a hair or apron is out of place. Wacky take-offs from the classics, canned one-liners and hollers and trills from backstage, above stage, and the center aisles all manage to dredge up snickers and good-humored groans from the viewers.

Under Les Waters's direction, Burton glows as Lady Enid, Nicodemus, and decadent Egyptian mummy smuggler Alcazar in the harebrained second act. Steele is comparably memorable as the foppish Lord Edgar and sinister house mum Jane. Set designer Annie Smart creates a world that smacks of gothic foreboding- dark paneled walls, monumental wooden doors, and thick fur rugs roil in shadowy luxury, and the fog that intermittently sweeps into the room evokes the chilly creepiness of the moors.

All in all, Irma Vep is not the sort of production prim-visaged patrons of theatre will flock to. If you're willing to quaff the chalice of camp and set aside all expectations but good pure fun, this is one bloody good show you won't want to miss.

The Mystery of Irma Vep runs through May 23.
at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Thrust Stage
2025 Addison St., Berkeley
Tickets: $43
Box Office: 510.647.2949
(open Tuesday-Sunday, 12 noon - 7 pm)