Magnum Farce

Bad jokes steal the show in The Mystery of Irma Vep

Bob Sorenson, left, and R. Hamilton Wright in The Mystery of Irma Vep.Those who have encountered playwright Charles Ludlam's work know that it is juvenile and silly and displays a fond appreciation for theatrical classicism. Those who haven't are in for a delightful baptism in farce at Arizona Theatre Company's production of Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep.

Ludlam founded the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967, naming himself artistic director and playwright-in-residence and gathering an ensemble of players who shared his affection for vaudevillian farce and satire. The Mystery of Irma Vep, which premièred in 1984, became the company's best-known offering and Ludlam's biggest success. Time called it one of the best plays of the year, and the show received a Drama Desk Award and two Obies. So warm was the reception for Irma Vep that, at the time of Ludlam's death in 1987, he was still turning down job offers from television and film producers who wanted to woo him away from his beloved playhouse.

Irma Vep is primarily a send-up of Victorian melodrama, though it also spoofs a heap of old movies, most notably Gaslight and Rebecca, as well as horror flicks like The Mummy's Curse and The Wolf Man. It owes its humor to bad puns, worse jokes, and lots of cheesy double entendres, but audiences love the show mostly for its big gimmick: dozens of lightning-quick costume changes by its two stars, who play all eight characters.

Bob Sorenson, left, and R. Hamilton Wright in The Mystery of Irma Vep.
Tim Fuller
Bob Sorenson, left, and R. Hamilton Wright in The Mystery of Irma Vep.

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Those characters include Lord Edgar Hillcrest, whose new bride, Lady Enid, is haunted by the specter of Edgar's first wife, Irma, and tormented by her nutcake servants, Jane and Nicodemus. There's also an Egyptian mummy, a couple of vampires, and a werewolf lurking out on the moors. The mystery of Irma Vep isn't all that mysterious, but Ludlam's unabashedly silly story is distracted by delightfully funny dialogue and the trickery of those costume switcheroos.

Stylistically, the show is camp parody, a broadly funny homage to penny dreadfuls that gets goofier as more things go awry. Setups lurk around every corner, and every situation dissolves into comic pandemonium; the players are always on the run, scurrying frantically in and out of doorways where, presumably, a team of dressers waits to hustle them into their next costume. A man turns into a werewolf onstage, a painting bleeds, and a damsel played by a fellow in a frock utters the line, "Well, any man who dresses up as a woman can't be all bad."

All this silliness is intended to display the comic talents and aerobic ability of the show's players (originally Ludlam and his lover, actor Everett Quinton). I suspect that ATC producing director's David Ira Goldstein optioned Irma Vep after watching Bob Sorenson's and R. Hamilton Wright's expert clowning in last season's production of Scapin. Both men are master comics, slapstick actors, and quick-witted mimics. Here, rubber-faced Sorenson is at his eye-popping best as an afflicted upstairs maid, a British lord, and the ghost of the title character. His performances constitute a priceless display of technique and timing -- both of a comic nature and the kind that allows him to hit his marks and deliver his lines seconds after being shoved into a large and elaborate new costume and hurtled onto the stage.

Wright more than keeps up, providing an Egyptian tour guide, the large charms of English Lady Enid, and a stable boy straight out of a Charles Addams cartoon. His flailing arms and bugged-out eyes recall every silent-screen heroine, and his withering glances and elaborate readings of deliberately terrible lines ("It's awful to marry an Egyptologist and then discover he's hung up on his mummy") brought as much laughter as the giant dresses he's made to wear.

Director Goldstein is up to the challenge of Irma Vep's speedy gait and over-the-top performances, and has added new quips and darkly Brontë-esque touches to the material. Goldstein knows his Warner Bros. schlock, and gleefully dishes it out in great but well-paced servings.

If there's a flaw with this show, it's that its glossy production values detract from, rather than enhance, the silly mood that should prevail. The cheap, tacky nature of these early entertainments would be better recalled with flimsy set pieces and tatty costumes. Drew Boughton's lavish and brilliantly crafted sets and David Kay Mickelsen's cunning costumes (particularly a dress made to match Enid's drawing-room draperies) are a little too elaborate for a show that's meant to remember rinky-dink melodramas of long ago.

On the other hand, our state's largest professional theater company probably couldn't get away with passing off a more intimate, cheaply designed production. That Goldstein and crew are offering the piece at all, with such buoyant acting and energetic direction, is great news. And of course the play itself is a classic of its genre, an impeccable example of how to construct, cast and mount a farce. Don't miss Irma Vep.

 
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