Mystifying Mystery

How can ATC's 'Irma Vep' be both brilliant and boring?

Now bounding across the stage at Arizona Theatre Company is The Mystery of Irma Vep—the two-man, quick-change, slapstick, camp horror romp by playwright Charles Ludlam. The 1984 play parodies classic horror films and Victorian penny dreadfuls, with werewolves, mummies and vampires all making appearances.

For me, the production had only one mystery: How can a play with so much going for it leave me feeling bored?

This was clearly not the case for everyone. Although I noticed other quiet spectators, the theater gradually filled with gales of laughter from the audience at large.

I have given the question of my dissatisfaction a lot of thought, but the culprit is elusive. My first suspicion was that I am simply a snob, and consider broad comedy beneath me.

Irma Vep, after all, is quite literally ridiculous: Playwright Ludlam was a key figure in the Theatre of the Ridiculous movement of the '60s. He and other writers produced satirical comedies that were surreal and camp, and incorporated pop-culture references and drag performances.

Plotwise, The Mystery of Irma Vep contains pieces of every classic horror story. Three years after the death of the former Lady Hillcrest, Lord Edgar has brought his new wife to live in his brooding manor on the moors. A woman of unusual habits—she sleeps during the day and stays awake at night—Lady Enid learns not only that there may be a werewolf on the loose, but that the former lady of the house was obsessed with the occult.

I won't spoil the surprise by revealing more of the storyline (such as it is), but it takes more unexpected twists than a funhouse ride.

Unfortunately for my snobbery hypothesis, the material isn't much different from what's dished out across town at the Gaslight Theatre, which I happen to find delightful. For now, I've put that theory to rest.

I am positive that the responsibility for my discontent does not lie at the feet of the talented two-man cast. Bob Sorenson and Oliver Wadsworth do the work of an entire theatrical troupe, switching off on multiple characters, each with unique voices and physical characteristics.

Wadsworth's first appearance, as the grounds-keeper Nicodemus Underwood, is something of a shock. His jet-black hair sticks straight out like a surprised porcupine's quills, and he stomps around the stage with an uncooperative "wooden" leg. His British accent is ostentatiously lower-class, and his pancake makeup makes no pretense of being real. This is the sort of un-naturalistic, physical performance that was favored by the Theatre of the Ridiculous. Combined with the English setting and the footlights at the edge of the stage, the effect is reminiscent of British music-hall pantomime.

With Wadsworth playing the groundskeeper, Lady Enid and a tap-dancing Egyptian tour guide, Sorenson gets the more-reasonable characters (relative to the material, of course). As Jane Twisden, he echoes every reserved English housekeeper you have ever seen on film or in fiction. As Lord Underwood, he displays an utterly unique way of descending into a chair with perfect, genteel posture.

Nor is my reaction the fault of ATC's artistic director, David Ira Goldstein, who keeps the antics coming at a madcap pace. A stage director is much like the butler in a mystery novel: When all is well, he fades into the background, but when something goes awry, he is the first to fall under suspicion. The director is, in fact, ultimately responsible for all that occurs onstage. With no sign of directorial error, though, it appears that Goldstein is innocent.

Also beyond indictment is the exceptional design team. Scenic designer Drew Boughton's manor house is a gothic cartoon that wins applause. Cobweb-strewn and full of detail, it manages to feel sprawling even as it condenses an entire estate into one room.

Lighting designer Michael Gilliam fills in the picture with his evocative, richly colored atmosphere and strobe lightning. Costume designer David Kay Mickelsen has also earned the applause that comes with the performers' every appearance. Mickelsen distinguishes each character with his or her own visual personality, while adding humorous details—the Egyptian guide, for example, wears a fez bedecked with a pair of fuzzy dice.

The real brilliance of Mickelsen's design, however, is in the part of the performance the audience never sees: the lightning-quick costume changes. His costumes create the illusion of normalcy while concealing a seemingly infinite series of layers and exit strategies. ATC could sell tickets for people to sit backstage and watch the 30-plus costume changes unfold.

Composer Roberta Carlson's cartoonish score is too synthesized for my taste, but she earns laughs with musical allusions to everything from folk music to The X-Files.

So, with all of this talent, why did the production leave me cold? In an Agatha Christie twist, we'll return to our early suspect. But I believe the culprit is not snobbery, but the material itself.

Consider the difference between the movies Airplane! and Scary Movie. The former was an anarchic slap in the face of every movie convention that we hold dear. Twenty years later, Scary Movie, built from the same self-referential shtick, won plenty of laughs, but lacked freshness and surprise.

When Ludlum was creating his work, bringing camp to a popular audience was radical. It challenged audience expectations and popularized queer culture.

Now his style has found mainstream acceptance on stage and screen. Camp for camp's sake is passé. Unfortunately, once robbed of its shock value, Ludlum's writing doesn't have much of an impact.

That's not to say it's not funny. But whether you find it hilarious or not depends on you.

If you're the sort of person who tires of reaching a joke's punch line before the teller even gets there, then you may find this production to be a bit annoying. But if you're looking for some easy laughs told with plenty of razzmatazz, then The Mystery of Irma Vep is guilty as charged.

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