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The Mystery of Irma Vep 

It's impossible to perform a bad version of this near-indestructible camp script

Wednesday, May 12 2004
The opening lines -- pious Victorian talk about rain -- were lifted whole from Ibsen's Ghosts, which the Berkeley Rep mounted in February. For his "penny dreadful" about a werewolf, an amateur Egyptologist, and a mysterious dead wife named Irma Vep, Charles Ludlam also borrowed from Oscar Wilde and Wuthering Heights and just about any Victorian source held in reverence by your average Berkeley Rep subscriber. The result is a near-indestructible camp script: I doubt it's possible to perform a bad Irma Vep. New York actors Arnie Burton and Erik Steele do strong work here, rotating in and out of eight roles. The chirpily optimistic Lady Enid (Burton) marries Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Steele) and comes to his manor with no notion of why things look so glum. But soon the snobbish maid Jane Twisden (Steele) and the wretchedly hairy manservant Nicodemus Underwood (Burton) lead Lady Enid to a horrific discovery. Les Waters directs the show cleanly but with no innovation; a production at the New Conservatory two years ago was funnier and more inventive. (The sound of ripping Velcro whenever the New Conservatory actors disappeared to change costumes still makes me laugh to remember.) The Lady Enid-Lord Edgar scenes are somehow more solid than the banter between Jane and Nicodemus, but Lord Edgar's trip to Egypt in Act 2 would be hard to improve on. Burton is particularly good as the blasé, opinionated, and highly homosexual Egyptian guide, Alcazar, who smokes a cigarette even inside an ancient tomb. There's been no lack of Irma Veps in San Francisco during the last five years, so I suspect Berkeley Rep mounted this one mainly to follow up Ghosts -- which isn't a bad joke in itself.


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