The Mystery of Irma Vep goes deep for its laughs, horror

Stephen Cartmell and Bradley Greenwald.
Stephen Cartmell and Bradley Greenwald.
Photo by Michal Daniel

Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep is a big challenge for cast, crew, and audience. The play's thick stew of theatrical tricks and melodramatic influences pushes everyone to the brink.

For the pair of actors cast in the production, it's about maintaining vital energy throughout the two hours of the show as they take on a dizzying array of characters -- to the point that the audience is convinced that there are actually more than two performers onstage.

See also: The Jungle revisits Irma Vep

The Jungle's remount of the play, first produced in 2010, works thanks to the solid chemistry of Bradley Greenwald and Stephen Cartmell. This helps a show that could just be an exercise in stage craft turn into something that is funny and memorable.

There's a lot going on here beyond quick costume and wig changes. Ludlum drew from plenty of sources for his "penny dreadful," from the novel and film Rebecca to tales of werewolves, vampires, and ancient Egyptian burial chambers.

Things are not quite right at the Mandacrest Estate, where Lord Edgar lives with his second wife, Enid. His first wife, the mysterious Irma Vep, drowned several years ago. A storm rages outside, there's a wolf on the moor, and even more secrets are inside.

With so much going on, it becomes a challenge just to keep the plot threads straight. When you factor in the play's melodramatic bent, it becomes all that much harder for the actors to thrive inside their characters without making them a complete joke. (You can do Irma Vep that way, but it becomes tiresome after about 10 minutes, and horrifying in all the wrong ways before the end of the first act.)

Both Greenwald and Cartmell are too skilled and caring about their art to let that happen. Instead, they do a razor-wire tap dance, putting enough soul behind the characters to make their absurdity all the more entertaining. At times, that makes this more of a clinical experiment than a fully entertaining show, but it is better to err on that side than outright camp.

Joel Sass hasn't attempted to direct a laugh riot. Instead, it's a play where madness is put on top of madness, as the tone can shift from Dark Shadows to the Rocky Horror Show to a Warner Bros. cartoon within the same scene. It's dizzying and, by the end, a lot of fun.


The Mystery of Irma Vep Through October 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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