“The Mystery of Iram Vep” – Arizona Theatre Company

This review aired on KBAQ May 9, 2011


Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center
Phoenix, AZ

Eleven years ago, Arizona Theatre Company mounted Charles Ludlam’s murder-mystery spoof “The Mystery of Irma Vep.” ATC claims it was a big hit and the most requested show audiences wanted repeated so this season its back.

But opening night not everyone, including this critic, was rolling in the aisles with glee. There were laughs, to be sure, but watching two actors play the multiple male and female characters of Mandacrest, one of those huge, rural mansions where mysteries unfold, turns amazingly predictable over the draggy two hour show.

The two guys – Bob Sorenson, from the earlier production, and local favorite Oliver Wadsworth – couldn’t be better flying in and out as seven backstage dressers change their characters with elaborate costumes in split-second amazement. Eerie sets provide further mayhem and are designed to aide the fast exits and quick returns. Within the first few minutes you meet most of the characters and each is very consistent and never changing. There aren’t any character surprises or development in these one-dimensional, stereotypical people.

There’s nothing wrong with David Ira Goldstein’s spirited and lusty staging which keeps the show sliding along although there’s not anything Goldstein can do to make “Irma Vep” seem shorter, quicker, or brighter. The plot takes forever to unravel as it tries to turn farcical every seemingly tired thriller cliché.

So what’s wrong with “Irma Vep”?

The problem is Ludlam’s ponderous and amazingly dry script. Ludlam and his madcap comedy spoofs are definitely an acquired taste. Ludlam loved men dressed as women and he starred in many of his own plays as women. Others do these transformations with more conviction, less ridicule, and far more hilarity. The musical “La Cage aux Folles,” recently revived on Broadway and coming here on tour next season, is a prime example. And how long can you watch the same characters with the same mannerisms crack the same jokes, do the same stupidity, and still find it funny?  Not for two hours, that’s for sure.

It was interesting opening night. There was polite, sporadic laughter between long periods of silence and one assumes boredom. Yet to hear people talk at the intermission, “Irma Vep” was one of the funniest plays many had seen. There are so many funnier plays and there were several excellent examples just this season.

Again, ATC’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is a stellar production. You won’t find a better staging but the material is just not hysterical. It plays through May 29. For tickets, call the Arizona Theatre Company box office at 602-256-6995 or order tickets online at www.arizonatheatre.org.

Grade: C