Everett Quinton Revisits The Mystery of Irma Vep

Everett Quinton Revisits The Mystery of Irma Vep This play is going to survive the ages," says Everett Quinton. "It's very powerful. And it's very funny."
Left to right: Everett Quinton with Stephen DeRosa in The Mystery of Irma Vep.
Left to right: Everett Quinton with Stephen DeRosa in The Mystery of Irma Vep. (Photo by Photo by Anita/Steve Shevett)

This play is going to survive the ages," says Everett Quinton. "It's very powerful. And it's very funny."

The play Quinton loves so much is The Mystery of Irma Vep, by Charles Ludlam -- and he is speaking from experience. When it was first performed by Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company 14 years ago, Quinton co-starred with Ludlam, who also directed. Now, the Drama Desk and Obie award-winning play is having its first major Off-Broadway revival, and Quinton is starring and directing.

Critics and theatregoers have loved the play, too. The original 1984 production ran for more than 300 performances and won Drama Desk and Obie awards. Over the years it has been frequently performed by regional theatres across the country.

Irma Vep, subtitled “a penny dreadful,” is a riotously absurd comic gothic thriller. Reviewers have called it a wild mix of "Rebecca," "Wuthering Heights" and "The Mummy's Curse," with touches of Shakespeare and Hitchcock. The play opens at Mandacrest, a manor on the moors, after the untimely and mysterious death of Irma Vep, the mistress of the estate, and moves on to the mummy-infested tombs of Egypt. There’s a dead wife and a new wife, a grounds keeper and a housekeeper, a howl of the werewolf and, naturally, a bite of the vampire.

Back in ’84, Quinton and Ludlam played all eight roles, dizzily switching from male to female, costume to costume and character to character. Quinton’s co-star in this production is Stephen DeRosa, last seen Off Broadway in Love’s Fire at the Public Theater. And Quinton is taking on the roles Ludlam portrayed in the original: Lady Enid, the new mistress of Mandacrest; Nicodemus Underwood, the one-legged grounds keeper who might possibly be a werewolf; Alcazar, an Egyptian guide; and an Egyptian mummy who returns to life. "I decided to switch roles," Quinton says, sitting in the theatre on W. 43rd St. during a break in rehearsals. "I wanted to give myself more of a challenge."

The play, he says, is first and foremost "a ghost story. It's also a mystery. We want to know who is the perpetrator of this heinous murder. It’s a classic tale with creaky doors, a monster in the house -- a don’t-go-in the-cellar kind of story. It’s also about people who are trapped -- in old fears, old bitternesses. I’m going to focus on those moments. But it’s also so funny. Portraying the ridiculous is working both sides of the fence. You tell the serious stuff, then you lob in the funny stuff and rely on the tension between the two."

Ludlam, who founded the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967 and was Quinton’s mentor, died in 1987. Quinton took over the company, running it for the next decade. And it was the memory of the original production, and of his long relationship with Ludlam, that made him at first reluctant to consider a revival. "I think I was afraid of this play,” he says. “And part of the reason I didn’t want to do it was the connection to Charles. Irma Vep was something we had developed and created together. There are a lot of emotions connected to that, and it was painful because I was afraid of those emotions."

But he’s happy with his decision. "It’s such a wonderful play, such an actable play. It’s so much fun, and it deserves to be done. The opportunity presented itself to do it again, and I had to take that opportunity. You have to move ahead in life."

--Mervyn Rothstein