At the Theatre / Jeane Theismann – Madcap mayhem at Arena Stage


All good things must come to an end as Arena Stage brings its successful debut season in Crystal City to a close with the outrageously funny Charles Ludlam spoof The Mystery of Irma Vep.

The eagerly anticipated production of Ludlams award-winning play showcases the astounding talents of theater veterans Brad Oscar and J. Fred Shiffman, who together portray all of the plays seven characters.

Written in 1984, Vep is Ludlams campy send-up of Gothic horror films, stealing shamelessly from classics like Wuthering Heights, The Mummys Curse and Alfred Hitchcocks Rebecca. The hilarious result was named one of 1984s best plays by both Time Magazine and The New York Times and has become one of the most-produced comedies in American theater.

The synopsis of Vep gives no hint of what has been referred to as Monty Python Meets Young Frankenstein: Lady Enid has come to Mandacrest as the new wife of Lord Edgar Hillcrest, unaware of the tragedy that befell his first wife, Lady Irma. She must command all her resources to battle the curse of werewolves, vampires and even an Egyptian mummy brought back to life, if she is to secure a happy future for her husband and herself.

Oscar and Shiffman, considered theater royalty among their peers, are nothing less than brilliant in their comedic timing and physical dexterity as they change costumes, characters and genders effortlessly, leaving the audience howling with laughter and constantly wondering, Howd they do that?

Oscar, a Tony Award nominee for his role in The Producers on Broadway, is a natural chameleon in his roles as Lady Enid, Nicodemus Underwood, Alcazar and Pev Amri. The barely-miss, on-stage encounters between his own characters is a dizzying display of Oscars vast talent.

Shiffman, with three Helen Hayes Awards and 13 nominations, brings an intense energy to his roles as Lord Edgar, Jane Twisden and an intruder. Together with Oscar, they are a tour-de-force and a powerhouse of sidesplitting comedy.

The lavishly silly costumes by Obie award-winner David Zinn, along with wigs by T. Tyler Stumpf, provide as much of the comedy as the dialogue itself. Broadway veteran set designer James Noones elaborately rigged Victorian and Egyptian sets provide the exclamation point to the perfectly choreographed production.

Directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman, the entire production cast works with split-second precision to achieve the multitude of zany character and costume changes by Oscar and Shiffman. Its no wonder that the backstage crew was given its own well-deserved curtain call at the end of the play.

Ludlam, who died prematurely in 1987 at the age of 44, starred with his partner, Everett Quinton (who directed The Importance of Being Ernest at Arena in 2004), in the original production of Vep, which earned both of them Obie and Drama Desk Awards.

An aficionado of classical literature, Ludlam weaves literary parodies of Shakespeare, Poe, Moliere and Oscar Wilde throughout the cleverly twisted dialog, staying true to his goals of treating the material in a madly farcical manner when he founded New York’s The Ridiculous Theatrical Company.

Artistic Director Molly Smith has stayed true to Ludlams spirit with Arenas hilarious crowd-pleasing production of Vep, which is sure to gain a new generation of fans, not just for the author, but for Oscar, Shiffman, and the entire Arena Stage cast and crew.

The Mystery of Irma Vep is playing now through July 13 at Arena Stage in Crystal City, located at 1800 S. Bell Street in Arlington. For tickets or more information call (202) 488-3300 or visit