Vamp Camp: Court Theater revives a gender-bending gothic horror farce

With the allure of romanticized vampirism clearly on the rise, as demonstrated by innocents like me knowing the “Twilight: New Moon” plot and release date, Charles Ludlam’s classically irreverent “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” directed by Sean Graney, graced the stage of Court Theater Saturday night to the audience’s palpable relief.

The sort of production that samples from every satirical subgenre in the book, “Irma Vep” can most concisely be described as a parody of gothic horror culture–at least, this is the outermost layer of commentary. Vampires, werewolves, and mummies all make an appearance, and the abrupt facial reactions and over-the-top dun dun duns call to mind the accidental hilarity of early horror films.

But campy horror is only one element of “Irma Vep,” if the most obvious. It would be criminal to neglect the brilliant gender commentary of the two-actor play, in which numerous characters, men and women alike, glide in and out of the parlor with swiftness and confidence. Erik Hellman and Chris Sullivan handle all of these characters with a thought-provoking ease. In one scene, Hellman’s Jane, the saucy maid, engages in a flirtatious conversation with Sullivan’s thuggish stable hand Nicodemus; seconds later Hellman has transformed into the heavily mustached master of the house, Lord Edgar Hillcrest, who calms Sullivan as his relentlessly perturbed wife, Lady Enid. The constant presence of two actors with continuously flexible gender was an obvious statement by Ludlam, who, in drawing up the rights to perform the play, stipulated that the two actors must be of the same sex.

It is testament to the abilities of both Hellman and Sullivan that the individual characters remained coherent throughout. After a short time, however, the sheer gut humor of dude-looks-like-a-lady was sapped; you can only laugh so long about a man in a dress. Luckily, the play moves just one rung up the maturity ladder and offers a complete smorgasbord of bawdy innuendo directed mainly at Jane, the big-busted, highly sexualized maid. Adopting the meta techniques of epic theater, the actors also move beyond the stage, squeezing uncomfortably through the audience and briefly interacting with its more alarmed members. This inclusion furthered the intimacy of a broken fourth wall, inviting the audience along for the increasingly crazy last two acts.

While the humor often pleased, the constant barrage of jokes was sometimes exhausting. Yet there was something admirable about the many directions explored by the fast-paced production, which included physical humor, anachronism, excessive special effects, and nods to the film world. Every little element–and every character–was so good-naturedly embraced by Hellman and Sullivan that it is all but impossible to separate their performances. Indeed, this must have been one intention behind the production: having two actors perform a variety of characters and shift their gender with ease makes each actor seem purely a medium, without the innate qualities that are assumed when the actor portrays one character throughout.

The plot of “Irma Vep” is really the least important part, apparently sewed together with bits and pieces from early Gothic drama and horror. Its campy predictability is just a vehicle for an assortment of commentary sprinkled like confetti on the stage. It is this–the self-conscious humor and gender-bending cross-dressing–that make the production worth seeing.
Court Theatre, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. Through December 13.

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