By Lynn Venhaus
“The Mystery of Irma Vep” is the play that went wrong — and not in a funny way. Its once-red hot reputation for absurdity and daring has dimmed as the overwhelming digital world of content has surpassed its satiric mix of genres three decades later.
Mashing up B-movie mysteries is no longer novel and spoofing Victorian melodrama is too creaky, even in drag. And despite its look-hard-to-read-between-the-lines allegory for monsters and terminal illness, none of it registers with this 21st century audience. Sadly, the show never catches fire and the material lands with a loud thud.
Playwright Charles Ludlam’s campy farce is a specific scenario that may make clever interactive dinner-theater but somehow seems saggy and dated in 2020, especially as a major production. Artistic Director Hana S. Sharif described it as one of the all-time great comedies, the 1984 original won Drama Desk and Obie Awards, and in 1991, it was the most produced play in America.
Thirty-six years later, no matter how they focused on the ‘monsters in society’ during the AIDS epidemic, its message is lost in translation because this script is not engaging.
Think the goofy merriment of Monty Python, or even Tim
Conway and Harvey Korman on the old “The Carol Burnett Show.” They are timeless
but this show is not. Why doesn’t it work? Are the dark-and-stormy-night manor
gimmicks no longer effective? It’s old Abbott and Costello hijinks set in an
outdated supernatural world.
When the dense pop culture landscape has given us vampires next door, the walking dead roaming our cities and ghost hunters flourishing in recent years, “Irma Vep” doesn’t even have quaint going for it.
Out of touch and out of tune, the show is in sorely need of a trim, as its construct fails to engage in two too-long acts on The Rep’s mainstage. Clearly, a 90-minute running time would have helped, instead of prolonging viewers’ misery, and the pace could have picked up.
Unlike the 2005 parody adaptation of Hitchcock’s 1935 movie “The 39 Steps,” which turned into a surprising amusing romp, this jumble of ancient family curse, mummy and howling werewolf is not interesting. When they went to Egypt, they lost me and it went downhill from there.
A “Penny Dreadful” is a psychological thriller that features dark mystery and suspense, but when this show is intended for laughs, neither the comedy nor the horror ignites. That’s a shame because the odd day-glo weird angles set by scenic designer Michael Locher looks terrific – although some sight line issues and what is with the giant skull? — and the lighting by designer Marie Yokoyama is spooky and effective.
This play was produced years ago in The Studio, and that intimate space seems to be a better fit than the larger auditorium. It could have benefited the two actors who try very hard to keep a momentum that involves playing eight characters and a few dozen costume changes and wigs. Bless those dressers, who get a herculean work out.
Nimble Esteban Andres Cruz and Tommy Everett Russell are obviously accomplished actors and look fabulous in the bold, elaborate costume designs by Sara Ryung Clement. They are trying hard to entertain, especially in the colorful drag outfits, and play off each other well.
But the frolic seems forced. This is a show that sorely needed a fresh interpretation, but director Nelson T. Eusebio III didn’t hit the refresh button to deconstruct what didn’t age well, but went big visually with the souped-up focus on outrageous drag looks and gender politics. That’s unfortunate because the production is an epic letdown.
Is it trying to do too much? To be more things to more people? To have hidden meaning when people aren’t looking for it? To create magic, you need a spark, and why isn’t it there?
And by the number of audience members who left at intermission, it’s not connecting with core subscribers. I was hoping it would find it’s “legs,” but there is obviously something that’s preventing people from getting into the story. The adventure isn’t all that adventurous.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents “The Mystery of Irma Vep” Feb. 14 – March 8 on the mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information, visit repstl.org. For the box office, call 314-968-4925.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.