Arizona Theater Company's The Mystery of Irma Vep Is Victorian Melodrama at Its Funniest

You know the economy's in the toilet when the state's largest professional theater is presenting a rerun. The Mystery of Irma Vep, the rather beautiful and amply staged Charles Ludlam farce that closes Arizona Theatre Company's season, is one it's done before — in a widely acclaimed 1999 production starring Bob Sorenson, who's also featured in this version. That production sold so many tickets that ATC artistic director David Ira Goldstein gambled on this remount, which has already paid off with an extension through the end of the month.

Vep is a send-up of theater (specifically Victorian melodramas and farce) and cinema that's crammed with literary references (particularly to Shakespeare, Wilde, and the Brontë sisters) and enough running gags that one needs a score card to keep up with them. But don't pity those of us in the audience, as Vep's conceit is that its eight characters — many of them women — are played by two men, whose mad dashes to four dozen backstage costume changes provide much of the comedy.

Fans of the late playwright's hyper-campy comedies, as well as certain among us who are classic film buffs, find ourselves (no matter how many times we've seen this popular penny dreadful) totting up references to old movies and untangling their provenance. (The most obvious are Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, which Vep seems mostly to be spoofing; a longish Act Two that owes its Egyptian gothic to The Mummy's Curse; and a generous helping of The Wolf Man, complete with an homage to the cheesy time-lapse montage that turned Lon Chaney Jr. into a monster.) Fortunately, one's mind can wander without losing track of Ludlam's purposefully broad story or any of its Gothic plot twists.

The real mystery of Irma Vep, in every one of its productions, is whether the costumes and quick-change shtick will upstage the actors. When those actors are Sorenson and Oliver Wadsworth (fresh from the national touring company of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), both geniuses in the creation of madcap characters, the costumes come in second.

Still, I leave every production of Irma Vep thinking not so much about the performers as the backstage crew, who must fit and Velcro the actors into and out of costumes for 48 costume changes. And what costumes — designed by David Kay Mickelsen, they provide a good bit of the comedy all on their own and are created specifically for backstage quick-change routines. (My favorite: an elaborately fringed gown made from the same drapery material hanging in the late Mrs. Vep's drawing room.)

Goldstein directs with such style that Irma never looks like a funhouse ride, and he even allows us a slow-enough moment or two to admire Drew Boughton's amazing set, which is as full of fun as the actors and the hyperactive script they bring once again so loudly to life.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela