Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Review Posted: The Mystery of Irma Vep

Centerstage has posted my rave review of Sean Graney's production of Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep at the Court. A few things there wasn't space to say in the review (curse you, 300 words!):

--The script has been described as a "cult classic" or a "camp classic." The hell with that. Drop the modifiers, this is a classic, full stop. It certainly makes use of camp (see cross-dressing, references to old movies, many jokes with gay content), and Ludlam's admirers can be cultish, but the play makes use of and transcends those elements. It's more than a stunt, it's an exceptional work of theatre.

--How does this show play to a straight audience? It seems to bound up in camp, crossdressing, and gay culture--and my response to it was so connected to my own identity--that I am fascinated how it works for people who don't fall into that category. Sort of like how I can't imagine what the experience of reading Philip Roth is for non-Jews. Anyone care to share their experience?

--The press notes indicated that the stipulation in the rights is that the two performers have to be the same gender, but nothing about that gender being male. I would love to see a production with two women in the parts.

--If I had more money, I'd seriously consider going back to see it again. I might try to figure it out anyway. And I hope that it does well enough they add a week--it is currently scheduled to close on December 13th!

--Wow Sean Graney works a lot. Frankenstein was just a month ago, and what a stirring rebound from that unsuccessful piece. Hopefully he'll continue at this level, and Court will ask him back again.

--Some of you  may find my response hyperbolic. To those people I say: So what? Get your own blog. I'm allowed to cream my jeans for truly extraordinary theatre once in a while.

Here's the text of the review:
The funniest upholstery of the season has been found: a black and white damask that keeps popping up in "The Mystery of Irma Vep," to increasingly riotous effect. And when even the cloth is hilarious, you know that something is going right.

Director Sean Graney and actors Chris Sullivan and Erik Hellman, along with the exceptional design team and a superheroic stage crew, have achieved something remarkable: broad, exaggerated comedy that doesn't feel slapdash. And it's the right thing for Charles Ludlam's play. The script is a dizzying series of quick changes, extremely dirty jokes and unabashed silliness, and either subtlety or sloppiness would be deadly.

The play has two men playing all of the characters, men and women, in a demented parody of gothic novels, among many other sources. The plot is far too ridiculous to summarize, but it centers on the mysterious doings at the English manor Mandacrest. A werewolf, a mummy and a vampire figure in the plot, along with several helpings of dark secrets.

But plot construction isn't the point: it's the glorious cascade of characters, costumes and jokes. Graney and company understand that what makes this play great is its exuberant theatricality, and they play it to the hilt. The actors create extraordinarily detailed performances, combining stunning vocal and physical control with an outsize joy in putting on a show. The designs work together seamlessly, though special credit must be given to Alison Siple's deranged costumes. And the crew richly deserves the bow it gets at the end for the impossible things that it makes look easy.

But it's Graney, again proving himself one of Chicago's essential directors, who marshals the theatrical forces at his disposal. It's an extraordinary display of both craft and love — and I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.


Monica Reida said...

Do you know if the ending is in the script or if that was Sean Graney's decision? Because it worked well enough that it fit with what occurs in the script, but whether or not that's in the script has been puzzling me since Saturday. (And I haven't found a copy of the script since then.)

I also think that the play is written in such a manner that a straight audience member that isn't familiar with cross-dressing, camp, and gay culture could enjoy the play, but they might not enjoy it as much as you did or I did.

Zev Valancy said...

I'm 95% sure that the ending (which I will not ruin) is entirely Graney's invention. If I can track down the script when I'm at home, I can make sure of it. However, apparently the dulcimer duet is actually written into the show.

Anonymous said...

The ending is not in the script. The dulcimer duet is. Glad you enjoyed it!

Zev Valancy said...

That's what I figured, but I'm glad to have it confirmed. And if you want to give me more tickets, whoever you are, I'll write about seeing it again!