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UDPDATED: Review: 'The Mystery of Irma Vep' at Ark Theatre

March 26, 2009 |  1:05 pm

Irma"The Mystery of Irma Vep" perches high atop the overflowing trunk of Ridiculous Theatrical Company tomfoolery left behind by the late, great Charles Ludlam. When wryly handled, this 1984 travesty of Gothic romanticism and monster-movie tropes is a farcical tour de force.

Make that "tours de force" -- what distinguishes "Irma Vep" is its quick-change, thrown-voice assumption of all the roles by two actors. In the daft Ark Theatre Company revival, director Andrew Crusse unleashes loopy players Jim Hanna and Steven Shields to largely hilarious effect.

Subtitled "A Penny Dreadful," the narrative slinks around Mandacrest, where Daphne du Maurier and the Brontes would feel right at home. The master is a devoted Egyptologist, newly remarried after the death of his first wife -- the titular, anagrammatical Irma Vep, whose crazed portrait practically leaps out from designer Shelley Delayne's faux-grim setting.

Typical of Ludlam, references run amok, "Rebecca," "Wuthering Heights" and Universal horror films merely the most obvious. Though missing the last degree of dry-ice lunacy -- the autoharp duet is absent, ditto the crypt-descent kneeling walk -- Crusse's staging lands its campy gist, aided by Jeff Davis' lighting, Dee Sudik's costumes and Corwin Evans' sound.

No duo will fully supplant originators Ludlam and Everett Quinton, whose airborne double act remains among this observer's most treasured theatrical memories. Even so, Hanna and Shields have a tandem field day, their aplomb approaching Tony Abatemarco and John Fleck in the 1998 Tiffany Theatre mounting, no mean feat.

Therefore, when Shields plays housekeeper Jane Twisden like "Young Frankenstein's" Frau Blücher, it blurs her Mrs. Danvers function yet tickles against Hanna's incongruously fluttering bride. Shields' shifts to priggish Lord Edgar similarly spark Hanna's one-legged Nicodemus, less Igor than "Simpsons" Groundskeeper Willie and riotous in a lycanthropic face-off with himself as Lady Enid. Here, as elsewhere, "Irma Vep" vaults from the wildly ridiculous to the dizzily sublime.

-- David C. Nichols

"The Mystery of Irma Vep," Ark Theatre, Upstairs at the Hayworth, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 4. $20-$22. (323) 969-1707. Running time:  2 hours, 5 minutes.

Photo: Steven Shields, left, and Jim Hanna. Credit: Raquel Krelle

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