Jack Wallen & Michael Drury. Photo: Chicken Coop

The Mystery of Irma Vep

By Charles Ludlam
Directed by Jason Cooper

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2019, by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

In his curtain speech, Artistic Director of Louisville’s newest theatre company and director of this production stated that both the company and The Mystery of Irma Vep were long-held dreams coming true.

Irma Vep is a new classic from Charles Ludlam, who is an icon of Gay theatre and whose work is dominated by cross-dressing motifs. In fact, companies are contractually forbidden from staging his plays without them. It might be interesting to see a production in which the two actors are women, but the intention is that they be men.

The story is a parody of Victorian melodrama and early horror cinema that relied heavily on Victorian melodrama. Imagine Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) or James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and you get the idea. An English estate, a second wife confronting the weighty legacy of the enigmatic first wife (the Irma Vep of the title), some potentially supernatural elements…vampires and an Egyptian sarcophagus enter the narrative.

As a director, Cooper was smart to cast Michael Drury and Jack Wallen here. The script requires them to step into eight different characters that are both male and female, by stepping in and out of eight costumes and almost as many wigs, all while delivering absurd dialogue in comic English dialects.

To say they make it look easy perhaps undermines the hard work behind it all, but Drury and Wallen also are obviously having a ball. I guess if you can’t find the joy in playing such sublime silliness you’re in the wrong show. The performance is creatively conceived and beautifully executed. I particularly enjoyed Mr. Drury as Nicodemus, the caretaker of the estate, perhaps because it was the most physically transformative work from the urbane Artistic Director of Pandora Productions, while Mr. Wallen made the most of his Jane Twisden.

The physical design of sets and properties by Monroe Fields, Jr. are just as strong, and Jimmy Johansmeyer’s costumes are perfect evocations of the aesthetic. I can imagine they required custom construction to facilitate the swift costume changes backstage.

That The Chicken Coop Theatre Company can enjoy such a proficient and polished launch undoubtedly owes something to Mr. Cooper’s years of experience, so the fact that their first show is this much fun is a sure expression of the artistic mission of “Free Range Theatre” included in the company logo. The Mystery of Irma Vep whets the appetite for their presumably more complicated spring 2020 production of Grey Gardens, the musical.

The Mystery of Irma Vep

September 26 – October 6, 2019

The Chicken Coop Theatre Company
Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202


Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.