Review: Court Theatre’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep”

Just go see it. Now.

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Court Theatre presents:

The Mystery of Irma Vep

by Charles Ludlam
directed by Sean Graney
thru December 13th (ticket info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Irma Vep 1 Productions like Court Theatre‘s The Mystery of Irma Vep are the reason why theater will always survive as an art form. The rush of watching two actors play multiple characters in a live setting with rapid fire costume (and gender) changes while telling a story about werewolves, vampires, ancient Egyptian princesses, and missing wives is unbelievable. This is an experience that you can’t find at the movies, can’t stream on YouTube, and can’t download to your PS3. The amount of energy required to successfully pull off Charles Ludlam‘s penny dreadful is astounding, and Erik Hellman and Chris Sullivan give masterful performances as the play’s six characters. Whether they’re playing "The Last Rose of Summer" on dulcimers, crawling over audience members transported to the pyramids of Cairo, or fondling mummified breasts, the actors never drop their energy, and the result is two of the most hilarious and exhilarating hours seen on the Chicago stage this season.

Sean Graney has established himself as one of the city’s best directors when it comes to high energy, high manic productions, and the fact that he can seamlessly transition from a heartwarming children’s theater production like The 100 Dresses (our review) to the risque, raunchy Irma Vep while maintaining a consistent directorial voice is mind boggling. Graney loves to get his actors in the audience at some point during his productions, and a scene where Hellman, as widowed archaeologist Lord Edgar, and Sullivan, as Muppet-browed Egyptian tour guide Alcazar, move through the rows of the house on their way to the stage at the start of Act II is a riot. Graney tears down the barrier between audience and actor, and Hellman sat on the laps of my guest and I, offered me his hand as he reached across audience members to shake Sullivan’s, and leapt over bags and jackets in the aisles, never dropping character.

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Hellman and Sullivan are two of the sharpest actors in Chicago theater, and they are insanely good in this production. Their vocal work is spot on, playing with exaggerated dialects and wildly varied pitches, and their physical work is outstanding. Casting a man of Chris Sullivan‘s size as the ingenue Lady Enid is guaranteed funny, but Sullivan captures the femininity of the character so well that the humor is amplified. The same goes for Hellman, playing the maid Jane with a hilarious mix of dainty, dirty, and sassy. But what makes these actors so phenomenal is their commitment to the world of the play. Hellman is supposed to dust everything, and he dusts everything: chairs, flowers, walls, books, footlights. Sullivan is handed a Pringle at the end of the play and delivers the line "I have a Pringle" with such seriousness that the viewer can’t help but wonder the symbolic importance of the potato chip. And the aforementioned dulcimer duet is bizarre yet completely captivating; the entire house sat in awed silence until the absurdity of the situation awakened hysterical laughter.

A show like Irma Vep has a huge "How’d they do that?!" factor, and Graney answers any questions about how such a technically complex show is put together with an absolutely genius final scene. The actors take the stage for the last time, but they are joined by the backstage crew and the production’s most valuable player: the costume rack. As the two men tie up the loose ends of Ludlam’s ridiculous plot they switch between characters and costumes on stage, stripping away illusion and revealing the magic that goes on behind the scenes. It’s an amazing sequence that is further amplified by the actors’ commitment to their roles, juxtaposing the actor’s job of creating reality with the inherent artifice of theater that is being presented to the audience. It’s intelligent, it’s hilarious, it’s brilliant. And that is The Mystery of Irma Vep in a nutshell.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

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 Creative Team

Sean Graney – Director
Jack Magaw – Scenic Designer
Alison Siple – Costume Designer
Heather Gilbert – Lighting Designer
MIchael Griggs – Sound Designer
Ellen Hay – Production Stage Manager
Sara Gammage – Stage Manager

One Response

  1. […] 7. The Mystery of Irma Vep by Sean Graney – Court Theatre (our review) […]

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