The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful
Intiman Theatre
Through May 22.

There's something grotesque about a play that might have had a whiff of scandal about it two decades ago, when it was first performed, but which has since been propped up and tricked out and trotted around to so many regional theaters that it's been utterly drained of blood.

No, that's the wrong metaphor. Irma Vep is about a vampire (what, you've never seen an anagram before?), but Intiman's production makes it clear that Charles Ludlam's play is far from immortal. The drag looks drugged, the camp has been run up a flagpole, and neither Mark Anders nor Richard Ruiz looks like he's having much fun (though, to be fair, Ruiz lolls his tongue enthusiastically). Perhaps director Jonathan Moscone should have re-titled his undead corpse of a show The Mystery of Zoe Mib.

Without the sense of transgressive glee that I'll politely assume early Irma Vep productions must have displayed, the play is just a cobbled-together mess of references. If Book-It Repertory's recent adaptation of Rebecca did nothing else, it showed how ripe Daphne Du Maurier's overwrought language is for camp appropriation. Irma Vep does that, though only half-heartedly.

The rest of the flabby quotations merely take up space. Despite the paragraphs lifted wholesale from Wuthering Heights to describe him, the character of Nicodemus Underwood has absolutely nothing in common with Heathcliff, so don't waste your time pondering the allusion. Lady Irma and Macbeth? No comparison there either. A literary reference isn't, strictly speaking, hilarious. That's why, at the performance I saw, people mostly snorted in recognition instead of laughing. Drag, served up straight, isn't funny. Neither are quick changes. One could perhaps make the case for the hilarity of dueling zithers. But even that inspired sequence goes on too long. Irma Vep deserves to be shot in the head and finally laid to rest.

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