The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful

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The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful, Northlight Theatre. Odd that 15 years after his death from AIDS, gay fringe-theater pioneer Charles Ludlam should be best remembered for this mainstream crowd pleaser. Premiered by Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1984, Irma Vep pays homage to and lampoons gothic thrillers. On a secluded English estate called Mandacrest (comically realized by set designers Richard and Jacqueline Penrod as an Edward Gorey pop-up book), an aristocrat is haunted by his dead--or perhaps undead--first wife, his frightened new bride, their spooky housekeeper, a vampire, a werewolf, a reincarnated Egyptian princess, and other mainstays of the genre. The play's real purpose is to showcase two actors (originally Ludlam and his lover Everett Quinton) in three roles each. It's as if a once grand rep company had been reduced to a pair of half-mad players fumbling through a melodrama of their own devising, cobbling together shreds and patches of Poe, the Bronte sisters, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, H. Rider Haggard, Wilkie Collins, Guy Endore, Daphne du Maurier, and even Shakespeare.

Jamie Baron and Tom Aulino sprint nimbly through their paces, switching costumes and voices at breakneck speed as they hustle on- and offstage. Still, there's something mechanical about the performances coaxed from them by director Peter Amster (who also tones down the script's slier gay in-jokes). The result, though not as hilarious as it could be, is an amusing evening of escapist entertainment.

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