Silly Spoof

Talented actors have a great time in LTW's 'Irma Vep,' but the play itself is rather insubstantial

The primary mystery in Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep is: What, exactly, is happening in this spoof?

The action doesn't make much sense, but it's clearly a send-up of old-style theatrical melodramas and classic horror movies (we get suggestions of vampires, werewolves, mummies, maybe ghosts and even a crazed ax murderer), with generous allusions to the films Rebecca and Gaslight as well.

Ludlam even resorts to outright thievery; the script is crammed with lines stolen from everything from Macbeth through the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to Young Frankenstein. Sometimes the lines fit, but often, they're just gratuitous.

The beginning and end of the play take place in an old English manor presided over by Lord Edgar Hillcrest, a man haunted by the memory of his late wife (named Irma Vep, an anagram for "vampire," not that I'm giving anything away, because in this play, one thing is almost never related to another). Now Lord Edgar has a new wife, Lady Enid, who is the subject of much conversation between two unhappy servants, the maid Jane Twisden and the peg-legged gamesman Nicodemus Underwood.

For no other reason than to spoof mummy movies, the middle of the play follows Lord Edgar to Egypt, where a local factotum leads him to the tomb of an old queen. And I use the term "old queen" in multiple senses, for all these roles, male and female, are played by only two men. It's a quick-change show that offers us the rather antiquated pastime of tittering at men wearing dresses.

Irma Vep is the light early-summer fare now being served up by Live Theatre Workshop. It stars the game, energetic and committed Stephen Frankenfield and Cliff Madison, old favorites at this company, even if they haven't appeared much on its little stage recently.

But enough about the production I'm supposed to review. Let's talk about me.

When I attended Flowing Wells High School some 35 years ago, I enrolled in a closed-circuit video-production program. Officially, my classmates and I were there to tape varsity football games, produce instructional videos on taxidermy and generate documentaries about career opportunities in the roofing business.

But we had access to the equipment after school, and worked on unofficial projects for our own amusement—everything from parodies of Grape-Nuts commercials to my own magnum opus, a nonmusical version of the opera Carmen transferred to the American West and shot, in part, at Old Tucson. It had much in common with the late film projects of Orson Welles, insofar as it was never finished.

One afternoon, my classmates and I improvised our way through a double send-up: Sherlock Holmes meets Frankenstein's monster. From scene to scene, the same kids would appear in different roles. It wasn't live, but for some reason, we didn't do retakes, and, of course, something went wrong at the climax. As Holmes, I was supposed to destroy the monster with a stunt pistol, but the gun failed to fire, so I wound up using it to deliver a lethal karate chop to the creature's neck. This production was never submitted for an Emmy.

I can't help comparing Irma Vep to the sort of thing my classmates and I were goofing around with, and Ludlam's play comes off worse for the comparison. My point is not that my friends and I could do better than Ludlam when we were in high school, but that what we did wasn't much different from Irma Vep. Why should people pay good money to see Ludlam's play, which is the sort of thing a bunch of precocious, pretentious teenagers could crank out after school?

The only reason is to watch a pair of actors have a good time, and that seems to be the case at Live Theatre Workshop.

Madison and Frankenfield take quite different but complementary approaches to their roles. Madison, as Lord Edgar and the maid Jane, is fairly low-key and relatively serious about his characterizations. This allows Frankenfield to flip over the top as Nicodemus and especially as Lady Enid. In effect, Madison is the introvert, and Frankenfield is the extrovert, and they need each other to keep the proceedings balanced.

Leslie J. Miller has directed the show in a family-friendly manner; it's less campy and queer than Arizona Theatre Company's treatment about 10 years ago, and also less self-conscious about straining for laughs with gags that go beyond the basic script. But not everything was in its proper place by opening night; in an early scene, when Lady Enid was seemingly being abducted or assaulted by an intruder, the action was so chaotic that it was impossible to tell what was going on, which is probably the point, but the sequence was also too slow, as if the actors were just vamping noisily offstage until they could get into the next costume.

The other transitions worked much better, and at the end, the assistant stage manager and dressers came out for a well-deserved bow. Charlotte Langford got in a couple of little jokes with her props, too, including the Egyptian queen's cosmetics case with its Egyptologized Hello Kitty theme; I couldn't read the fine print, but I think it said "Hello Bastet."

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