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irma-vep.jpgWhen I got home a couple of Sundays ago from a performance of the Court Theater‘s latest production, Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, directed by hyperkinetic wunderkind director Sean Graney, my Twitter and Facebook feeds were full of reactions to Adam Lambert’s performance at the American Music Awards (AMA). Although some of those tweeting and Facebooking were shocked (feigned or real, I’m not sure), most, including myself, thought the whole performance was derivative, non-provocative, and somewhat tired and yawn-inducing (we’ve already seen everything he did before, and it’s not like he was singing strapped into a sling!).  I think my friends’, straight and gay, jaded reaction to Lambert’s shameless self-promotion was indicative of how much gay iconography (man-on-man kiss; man-face-on-man-crotch; man-leading-man-on-a-dog-leash), regardless of how fringe they might be, had seeped into our pop culture moments since the year Ludlam premiered his cross-dressing parody of penny dreadfuls and early Hitchcock films in 1984.  But leave it to Ludlam’s brilliance that 1980s-era Irma Vep is, ironically, fresher, queerer, and yes, more subversive than the 2009 attempt of an American Idol runner-up to hog headlines.  And Graney has given this first-rate theatrical material, that is also trickier than a landmine detonation, a flawless, hysterically funny production, and thrown in a couple of his own unique innovations, including a brilliant final scene.  It’s a handful of a play, but a welcome one.

Irma Vep‘s plot is a send-up of the damsel-in-distress Gothic melodrama, with a young wife coming home to live in her new husband’s isolated mansion, only to encounter a sinister housekeeper, an intimidating wooden-legged groomsman, and the still-palpable presence of her husband’s dead first wife.  It’s silly, outrageous, and clavicle-popping funny as it is, with bizarre twists and turns that include werewolves, bleeding portraits, and a trip to an Egyptian mummy tomb, and a dizzying array of literary and cinematic references ranging from Wuthering Heights to Gaslight, from Shakespeare to Hammer Films 1950s horror movies mixed in with campy, lowbrow humor.  However, as a seminal play of the Theater of the Ridiculous, which headily mixed up elements of camp, farce, “queer theater”, and performance art, Irma Vep‘s six or so characters, both male and female, are played by only two actors of the same gender, and the resultant cross-dressing sight-gags and lightning-quick costume changes and stage entrance and exits bring on more belly-aching laughs.   It’s really important, then, to have the right actors for this play – who not only have excellent comedic skills and an impressive versatility to switch among a variety of characters, but also the sensibility to play material that is gayer than a pearl choker on a RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant.

In my opinion, this production’s outstanding duo of Chris Sullivan and Erik Hellmann, two actors who had wowed me in past performances, is un-improvable.   Sullivan, who I last saw as the primeval, animal-like protagonist of Graney’s The Hairy Ape during the Goodman’s O’Neill Festival, a performance which is two circumferences away from this performance, is, quite simply, magnificent.  He is hilarious and wacky without being goofy and muggy, delicate and masculine at the same time, a more self-aware Margaret Dumont crossed with a somewhat-swishy Lucha Libre wrestler.  My advice to you, my dear blog readers, is to wear loose-fitting clothing, since when he first comes out as the new wife, Lady Enid, in a gargantuan wig and a floral-print ball gown that matches the drawing room furniture,  buttons are sure to pop out with all of your heaving guffaws!  Hellmann, who I’ve always seen in these intense, moody, dramatic roles, is an impressive match.  Although his Lord Edgar character has to play deadpan straight man to Sullivan’s more flamboyant characters, his Jane Twisten, the malevolent maid, is equally hilarious and rib-cracking, whether flitting around dusting the footlights, hitting Lady Enid in the face with a fireplace poker, or seductively reprimanding Nicodemus, the groomsman.  It’s a confidently androgynous performance which is as precise and as technically skilled as Sullivan’s butcher one.

After the infuriatingly chaotic Frankenstein, I am rekindling my love affair with Sean Graney (people, please lift your imaginations out of the gutter!), who I think is one of the best directors currently working in the city.  He gives Ludlam’s material whiz-bang pacing and a subtle restraint that gently redirects some of the jokes away from super-gay territory.  He orchestrates the various design elements masterfully, with major props to Jack Magaw’s meticulously detailed sets.  Graney amps up his highly-kinetic visions, and makes them bawdier, a terrific match with Ludlam’s, who said that comedy “punishes the status quo, changes the way they think about things.”  He also infuses the play with a pretty contemporary point of view, most reflected in the innovative last scene, in which Sullivan and Hellmann wrap-up the play with their backstage dressers and their costume rack, full of Allison Siple’s amazingly designed outfits, onstage with them, both irreverently but gently breaking the theatrical illusion and giving playful homage to it at the same time.   It’s a brilliant ending to a breathlessly careening play, and gives the audience some time to pause and reflect on all the masterful hard work that went into what they have just witnessed.

Head on over to Hyde Park to see The Mystery of Irma Vep, running at the Court Theater, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., until December 13.  It’s funnier, more outrageous, and way more intelligent than a Real Housewives of Atlanta marathon!  I know what you guys are using your DVRs for!

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