The Vaude Squad

The Marriage Of Pop-Culture And Vaudevillian Humor In 'Irma Vep' Has Audiences Howling In The Aisles.

SOME PEOPLE ARE just inherently, or maybe the word is intrinsically, ridiculous. You know these people: they drink a glass of water and you cry laughing. They're funny people, in every sense of the word -- funny ha-ha, funny strange, just funny.

By all accounts, Charles Ludlum was one of those people. He founded his NYC-based Ridiculous Theatre Company in 1967, which produced and toured more than 30 plays during its 20-year run with Ludlum as artistic director, playwright and frequent star. The devilishly clever "penny dreadful" The Mystery of Irma Vep is one of his tour-de-farce creations, a marvel of cracked and crossed-references from classic horror films like Rebecca, The Mummy's Curse and The Wolfman spiked with literary and pop-culture spoofs that pass seamlessly from Shakespeare to Star Wars. (Though Director David Ira Goldstein deserves due credit for up-to-the-minute references thrown in from The X-Files and Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?)

Though Ludlum dabbled in television (Candid Camera early on, and Miami Vice in the '80s), his first love was his Ridiculous stage. He poured his life into the theatre, bypassing more lucrative offers in film and television to pursue extensive tours of company works in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Eventually he went on to teach at New York University and Yale.

When Ludlum and his lover Everett Quinton premiered Irma Vep in 1984, it won both the Obie and Drama Desk awards that year. Ludlum seemed to embody joy in life -- to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, he was that rare creature who dedicated himself to "being used for a purpose recognized as a mighty one; being thoroughly worn out before thrown on the scrap heap; and being a force of nature instead of a feverish clod of ailments and grievances."

In 1986, the same year he was diagnosed with AIDS, he received the Rosamund Gilder Award for distinguished achievement in theatre. He vowed that year he'd be the first to beat the AIDS virus. He was 44 years old when he died in May of 1987.

So despite the fact that Irma Vep is a light comedy, it isn't a comedy one should enter into lightly. Ludlum's lightning quick changes touch every aspect of this production, which requires tight stage direction to pull off two 55-minute acts of non-stop verbal antics and physical comedy. It needs to be over-the-top without veering into overkill.

The comic duo of Bob Sorenson and R. Hamilton Wright, who last shared the ATC stage in 1998's Scapin, thus have big shoes to fill in performing the script's eight male and female characters all by themselves. This reviewer is not a big fan of slapstick comedy, but their athletic performances never falter. Not only do they deftly manage Ludlum's smartly hilarious dialogue without a hitch, but a careful reading of the script reveals a few of those applauded one-liners at last Saturday's sold-out matinee were seemingly ad-libbed.

Add to that their flawless timing with props and costume changes, and you have one seriously funny piece of theatre, masterfully directed by ATC artistic director Goldstein.

The terrifically haunted Mandacrest castle is equally full of surprises. ATC's sets never disappoint, but this three-dimensional cartoon of indistinguishable materials is quite a sight. Kudos to set designer Drew Boughton and the staff that erected it in record time. Though the model for this deliciously detailed set was completed in August, construction began only a few weeks ago, after the closing of Master Class. The play is set in a wintry English estate "near Hampstead Heath, between the wars; and in various places in Egypt."

But most of the action unfolds in the library drawing room of Mandacrest, where thick cobwebs snare the pale moonlight and thunder and lightning silhouette gray stone walls and claw-like trees. Inside the French doors of this decaying Gothic lair, lighting designer Michael Gilliam gives us a blue-black night illuminated by the dim glow of a guttering chandelier and the fire's dying embers. Inanimate objects turn unexpectedly animated here, with old-time theatrical tricks best left unspoiled.

So what is the story, you ask? Under threat of a curse, I'm sworn to secrecy. And I'm just as happy to have the curse to blame, because such a plot as this is not readily explainable. In fact, a fellow audience member asserted there was no story at all. "But there were a lot of funny lines," I replied.

"Yes, but what about the story?"

One could say it's like a piñata: when you're through beating up on it, what comes spilling out is still more interesting than your intellect would lead you to believe. Irma Vep has adult humor, but it's good, clean fun that'll make you feel like a kid at a puppet show.

Arizona Theatre Company's The Mystery of Irma Vep continues Wednesday through Sunday, through December 18, at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Evening show times begin at 7:30 and 8 p.m., with select matinees at 2 and 4 p.m. Tickets range from $20 to $32, available at the ATC and Dillard's box offices. For reservations and information, call 622-2823.
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