"The Mystery of Irma Vep" at 6th Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Photo by Eric Chazankin: Craig A. Miller (left), Ryan Schabach

Campy, Vampy Irma Really Hits the Spot

Charles Ludlam’s brilliant farce pays spoofy homage to just about every old mystery movie you can think of: “Rebecca”, “Laura”, “Nosferatu”, “The Mummy’s Curse”, “Wuthering Heights”, “The Werewolf” - a crazy quilt of fun and surprises that will keep you in stitches from beginning to end.

“The Mystery of Irma Vep” premiered in 1984 off-off Broadway to critical acclaim and awards. It was ultimately hailed by Time Magazine as one of the best plays of the year, going on to become one of the most widely produced plays in the United States. Included in the performance rights is an amusing clause that states the two actors that perform all seven roles must be the same gender, “to ensure cross-dressing”. Playwright Ludlam’s career included many adventurous off-Broadway productions under the auspices of his very own Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which fully lived up to its name. “The Mystery of Irma Vep” was his only hit, starring Ludlam himself and his romantic partner Everett Quinton.

Director Marty Pistone says his aim is to make his audience forget their troubles with laughter, and he hits his target. He comes from a family of New York vaudevillians and really knows his stuff, infecting his cast with his zany sense of the absurd, of slapstick, and of pure joy.

Craig Miller and Ryan Schabach play, in every sense of the word, a dizzying assortment of characters with quickie costume (and attitude) changes. These guys are so good you forget there’s just the two of them. We get to see them in dresses and trousers, flapping shrouds and stripper’s tassels. Even furry, pointy ears are donned at one point in the proceedings. Their chemistry and comic timing is impeccable, reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, but perhaps a bit more on the subversive side.

After working behind the scenes as Sixth Street’s new Artistic Director, Miller takes the stage and it’s a pleasant surprise to discover he clearly belongs there. We hope he’s done hiding his light under a bushel, because he is nothing short of brilliant, a first-rate comic. The well-upholstered Miller sashays about in floor-length frocks and silly wigs, shattering the fourth wall time and again with comic bravado.

Schabach is superb, playing his several roles with perfection, making clever use of comic mugging, pratfalls and just plain shtick. The results are irresistible. His entrances and exits are particularly noteworthy and will make you smile days or even weeks later.

The amazing pianist and Foley artist extraordinaire Janis Dunson Wilson is fully involved in every bit of action from her station downstage left, providing a rich array of music, sound effects, cues, and more. The scenic designer David Wright deserves special mention for some really crafty set pieces integral to the story, from the stately manor to the Egyptian tomb and back. Can we say Mummy’s sarcophagus and moving bookshelves without giving too much away?

When the two gents and the lady finally come downstage center at the end of the show to take their bows, the audience jumps to its feet, whooping and cheering in a much-deserved standing ovation. This is one smart and funny feel-good show that everyone will enjoy. It's a scream!

When: Now through June 26, 2011
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
8 p.m. Thursdays June 9, 16 & 23
2 p.m. Saturdays June 11, 18 & 25
2 p.m. Sundays June 5, 12, 19 & 26
Tickets: $15 to $32
Location: 6th Street Playhouse GK Hardt Theatre
52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com