The Mystery of Irma Vep

by Robert Bullen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday November 26, 2009

Erik Hellman and Chris Sullivan camp it up in "The Mystery of Irma Vep"
Erik Hellman and Chris Sullivan camp it up in "The Mystery of Irma Vep"  

There's something to be said for actors who can maintain madcap energy for two-plus hours when they are given little in return for their efforts. It's like a superpower.

Erik Hellman and Chris Sullivan, who built the action into a frenzy of mystery and mayhem despite playing to a sleepy Sunday matinee crowd that seemed more interested in unwrapping cough drops than the performance at hand, have this superpower in spades. And thanks to these two inimitable and superbly gifted comics, there's never a dull moment in Court Theatre's The Mystery of Irma Vep.

Charles Ludlam's camp classic combines gothic horror, Victorian melodrama, classic film, and conventional theater to create a highly unique and whacky double act. The plot, which borrows heavily from Hitchcock's "Rebecca" and Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles," includes special appearances by ghosts, mummies, vampires, servants, concealed wives and theatrical leading ladies--all played by two actors. Just be prepared for when the action makes a sharp right turn in act two. However, if you just go with it and focus more on the laughs than on any sense of a logical storyline, you'll be just fine.

The requisite quick-changes are so elegantly executed, you at times take for granted that an actor has walked off stage and entered in a completely different outfit in a matter of seconds. Mention should be made of Alison Siple's structurally advanced costume designs, which effortlessly transform Mr. Sullivan from a menacing, bald-headed servant to a zaftig, cleavage heaving Lady Enid. (I would totally buy tickets--if they were available--to see the goings on backstage. Major kudos to the crew who help execute these changes with ease and skill. )

They've even managed to transform an actor into a werewolf before your eyes, using nothing more than carefully concealed costume pieces and skillfully rehearsed slight-of-hand. It's a brilliant piece of staging.

Director Sean Graney colors the camp with a darker, more offbeat hue than most directors would probably envision. For example, Hellman's housekeeper is far from the buttoned-up Mrs. Danvers clone that seems the obvious inspiration for the role, and rather makes her a child-like flirt, complete with curls, coy glances, and petticoats. Sullivan's Nicodemus could easily crush the skull of anyone who questions his motives. Graney's staging of the final scene, where all the loose ends are tied up, is inspired, if perhaps a bit unnecessary. As much as it appealed to my curiosity factor, I'd have preferred leaving the fourth wall in place.

I just wish the audience I'd seen it with had been more engaged. It's lonely laughing all by yourself.

A native midwesterner, Robert is a self-confessed Chicago theatre addict. You can read more about his addiction at