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Campy ‘Irma Vep’ sends up clichés with men in drag

Greg Alexander and Benjamin T. Ismail perform in "The Mystery of Irma Vep" at the Sacramento Theatre Company. Kelly Christoffersen/Courtesy photo

By
From page A9 | November 13, 2012 |

That’s the ticket

What: “The Mystery of Irma Vep”

When: 12:30 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 6:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, 1419 H St., Sacramento

Tickets: $15-$38, www.sactheatre.org or 916-443-6722

“The Mystery of Irma Vep” is a spirited pastiche that gleefully takes down a host of horror film clichés, cheerfully jabs at literary sacred cows and tickles your funny bone with scene after scene of men in drag.

It’s all good, campy fun — theatrical goulash, if you will. At one level, “Irma Vep” is a spoof of the old English “penny dreadful,” a form of pulp fiction that flourished in the 19th century. Old Hollywood fright films are lampooned as well — there’s a vampire who only comes out at night, a werewolf who howls when the moon is full and an ancient Egyptian mummy that springs back to life when the proper incantation is heard.

Since “Irma Vep” is an equal-opportunity lampoon, high-class cinema and 20th century bestsellers are targeted as well — the alert viewer will spot references to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (and the novel by Daphne du Maurier that inspired it), as well as allusions to literary masterworks by the Brontë sisters and Shakespeare.

The verbal humor runs to double entendres and puns, a la “It’s a terrible thing to marry an Egyptologist, and find he’s hung up on his mummy.”

This show traces its provenance to New York circa 1984, when the late comic genius Charles Ludlam — of the aptly named Ridiculous Theatre Company — wrote it, produced it and starred in it. Ludlam specifically stipulated that both of the show’s two performers must be of the same gender — guaranteeing that there will be a fair amount of cross-dressing, since each performer plays both male and female characters. (Ludlam, alas, died at age 44 in 1987, of AIDS related complications.)

All of this makes for lots of costume changes — upwards of 30 of them, by my count, in a show that runs under two hours. So the Sacramento Theatre Company has wisely hired veteran Greg Alexander — who’s done campy drag, as well as serious cross-dressing like the Pulitzer-winning drama “I Am My Own Wife” — and young Benjamin Ismail, a stepsister in STC’s “Cinderella,” to bring “Irma Vep” to life.

Alexander originally was hired as director, but was pressed into service as a performer as well when an injury sidelined a cast member. If this hadn’t been announced at the show’s outset, we wouldn’t have guessed: Alexander’s comic acting is spot-on, and his timing is impeccable. He plays a lord, a female servant and a few others besides. His scenes in drag recall Milton Berle, who did TV comedy in women’s clothes in the 1950s, as much as the gay entertainers of later decades.

The energetic Ismail plays a hunchback from the stables (slurring his words due to the fake rotting teeth in his mouth), a high-class, high-strung actress, a shifty tomb-raider and more.

Also notable is the scenic design by Mims Mattair, with cut-out wooden props that bring a whole new meaning to the term “flatware,” and the wildly colorful costumes by Jessica Minnihan. Stage manager Suzanne Tyler coordinates the rapid entrances and exists, as well as split-second backstage costume changes. The cozy confines of the Pollock Stage, which seats fewer 100, adds to the intimacy.

You might have expected the Sacramento Theatre Company to have staged this frothy romp in October, leading up to Halloween. But they’ve put it in the November-through-mid-December slot, with the expectation that holiday season audiences will want a laugh as the year-end festivities approach.

“The Mystery of Irma Vep” plays Wednesdays at 12:30 and 6:30 p.m., Thursdays at 6:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the Sacramento Theatre Company, 1419 H St., Sacramento. Tickets are $15-$38, and available through www.sactheatre.org or by calling 916-443-6722.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8055.

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