Jungle revisits The Mystery of Irma Vep

Bradley Greenwald.
Bradley Greenwald.
Photo by Michal Daniel

Charles Ludlum's The Mystery of Irma Vep is many things. One thing it is not: easy.

The Jungle Theater revisits the play starting this week. Joel Sass directed the first production in 2010, and this marks his third time in the chair of the play, which tells a fast-paced adventure with only two actors.

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"Just because you have scaled the peak once before doesn't mean it gets any easier," Sass says. "It' nice to know where the sand traps and the pitfalls are, but you do have to resolve them a second time or a third time."

Bradley Greenwald was one-half of the cast in 2010. He compared the return to another Jungle piece he has done twice, I Am My Own Wife.

"It's a chance to complete gestures you have may have only sketched in the first production," he says.

Greenwald's onstage partner has changed this time around, as Stephen Cartmell joins the fray. "It's very challenging. For such a goofy ride, the show is incredibly specific and technical. It's written so well. It can be tricky language to learn," he says.

"It's silly and incredibly earnest," Sass says.

The play embraces plenty of different ideas -- there are vampires, an Egyptian goddess, and a mansion packed with secret passages -- and offers plenty of challenges to the actors beyond Ludlam's rich language.

"It is treading on so many different genres. You can't go completely into melodrama. You can't just do camp. It doesn't sustain itself," Cartmell says.

The pair plays eight different characters in the piece, and the script often forces lighting-fast costume changes.

"If you run out looking like a ragged hag, the costume machine doesn't work. It has to look flawless. You have to put a lot of trust in the backstage people to engineer all that," Cartmell says.

A five-person backstage crew assists the actors in the various quick changes and different theatrical special effects. "They very much earn their curtain call at the end," Sass says. "They need the same gestation period. They need to rehearse as much as the actors need to rehearse so it becomes instinctive and reflective."

Ludlum, who died in 1987, just a couple of years after Irma Vep premiered, enjoyed exploring different, half-forgotten bits of theatrical stagecraft. "This features the art of the quick change," Sass says.

The Jungle's intimate space makes it a perfect place to stage the play. "I can't imagine making all of those stage laps on a set that is bigger. Once the sound cue rolls, you are basically running for two hours," Greenwald says.

The final player in all of this is the audience, whose support is essential to make The Mystery of Irma Vep go.

"It is a different kind of relationship. The audience is complicit in the game. They know two actors are doing everything. Their investment is complicit and supportive, and it is enjoyed. There is a lot of suspension of disbelief," Greenwald says.


The Mystery of Irma Vep Friday-Oct. 19 Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis $25-$43 For tickets and more information, call 612.822.7063 or visit online.

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Jungle Theater

2951 Lyndale Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408



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