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Review: The Mystery of Irma Vep, a Penny Dreadful

Take one cup Edgar Allen Poe, one cup Bram Stoker, one cup Anne Rice, four cups Monty Python, mix thoroughly and serve with a generous sprinkle of Egyptology and you’ll have the perfect recipe for the highly entertaining and hysterically funny production, The Mystery of Irma Vep, a Penny Dreadful, by Charles Ludlam, currently running at The Black Box Theatre in downtown Moline.

What is a “penny dreadful,” you ask? Program notes describe it as “cheap popular serial literature produced during the 19th century in the UK …and…roughly interchangeable with penny horrible, penny awful, and penny blood.” They were generally published weekly, ranged in length from 8 to 16 pages, and sold for a penny.

The Victorians were enamored with séances, werewolves, vampires, and, in particular the mysteries of Egypt ’s pharaohs and their tombs. This melodrama has all those elements. The characters are Lord Edgar, who pines for his first wife, Irma Vep and their son who met their demise at the paws of a werewolf, his current wife, Enid, their housekeeper, Jane, and swineherd, Nicodemas. Suffice it to say the bizarre plot takes ludicrous and fantastic turns including a trip to Egypt .

Wikipedia describes this script as “written for two actors who, between them, play eight characters of both sexes. In order to ensure cross-dressing, licenses to perform the play include a stipulation that the actors must be of the same sex. The show requires a large number of sound cues, props, special effects and quick costume changes. Some 35 costume changes take place over the course of the two hour show.” Needless to say, this is a monumental challenge for the performers.

That challenge is more than ably met by the dynamic duo of T Green, who takes on the characters of Jane, Lord Edgar, and the ghost of Irma, and the incredibly versatile Max Robnett who portrays Nicodemus, Lady Enid, an Egyptian guide, and the reanimated mummy of an Egyptian princess. These two talents romp through this show with unparalleled gusto and their flair for improvisation to cover what appeared to be overly long costume changes or other possible backstage glitches were brilliant. However, I think Green could have developed more of a distinction between facial expressions and the British accents of Edgar and Jane.

Gigantic accolades go out to Lora Adams for the Victorian Era set that felt so very authentic despite some issues with closing of the door and curtains.

So, if you’re looking for a fun frolic through the ridiculous this is the show for you.

The Mystery of Irma Vep, a Penny Dreadful continues at The Black Box Theatre, 1623 – 5 th Avenue , Moline , Thursday through Saturday, April 20 through 22 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 23 at 2:00 p.m.