The Mystery of Irma Vep | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Such strangers in the night! A bloodsucking vampire, a one-legged werewolf, a mummy with birthday hats for breasts, a creature with glowing eyes, a beast whose face is wrapped in a Sarah Palin mask.

And you thought Halloween was last week.

This is Charles Ludlam land -- specifically The Mystery of Irma Vep, the first play of Open Stage Theatre's new season. A huge off-Broadway hit when it debuted in 1984, Vep is peppered with eight characters, male and female, sane and perhaps not, all played by a cast of two.

Ludlam's work is a satire and spoof, a broad farce that pays homage to (when not sending up) creaky Gothic melodramas, vaudeville and those vintage black-and-white horror classics now a staple of TCM. He liberally steals -- "lifts" is too kind a word -- from Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Frankenstein (and Bride of ... ) and nearly any horror flick that has the word "Mummy" in its title.

It's all here: Dark and stormy nights, full moons, a haunted mansion, haunting howls, spooky sounds, murderous intentions, cheesy organ moans and groans, mysterious figures, vampires and wolf(wo)men and other things that go bump in the night.
And that's just Act I.

Act II introduces us to the wonders of Egypt, right off a Camel cigarette pack, complete with a prop-up Sphinx, oversized sarcophagus and the play's second funniest line. (Think "Cairo.")

But to make a farce work -- especially this farce -- razor-sharp, split-second timing is needed. Exits and entrances need to be classified as "hairpin." Irma Vep has always been a case in which the off-stage co-stars -- dressers, designers and musicians -- must come together without a moment's hesitation.

Let me say it again: Buttomakeafarce work -- especiallythisfarce -- razor-sharp, split-secondtimingisneeded.

Get the point?

The major flaw with this production, directed by David M. Maslow, is the two leads. Silly can be a star here, and players Robert O'Toole and Dean Novotny get that right. (The latter's "pissing scene" is quite funny.) But the duo are simply not fast enough, not sharp enough, to give the production what it must have to succeed. At Sunday's matinee, delayed lighting and music cues and ill-timed blackouts plagued the production more, and most of the delicious double entendres were lost among the small audience, including the show's funniest line: "Virginity is like a balloon in the carnival of life. It vanishes with one prick."

Mystery solved.


The Mystery of Irma Vep continues through Fri., Nov. 15. Open Stage Theatre, 2835 Smallman St., Strip District. 412-394-3353 or

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