Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Mystery of Irma Vep
Southwest Shakespeare Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Beauty and the Beast and Anastasia

Betsy Mugavero and Quinn Mattfeld
Photo courtesy of Southwest Shakespeare Company
Charles Ludlam's play The Mystery of Irma Vep was a huge hit when it was first staged by Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York in 1984 and went on to be one of the most produced plays in the United States. Ludlam's comedy is a spoof and mash-up of the "penny dreadful" serialized works of sensationalized literature from the U.K. in the 1800s and other gothic novels and films. It also requires two actors to play the eight characters of both sexes in the show. Southwest Shakespeare Company's production features the company's co-producing artistic directors, who appear to be having a blast while creating the humorous characters in this outrageous farce.

However, as funny as it is to see two actors play so many parts, the plot gets lost by the third act, with the convoluted, comical situations overpowering the thrust of the piece. Also, the comedy hasn't aged all that well for a variety of reasons. First, there have been a steady stream of popular spoof films and TV show skits over the past 35 years, so the idea of satirizing familiar books and films isn't that fresh or original. Also, the much better The 39 Steps, which first premiered in 2005 and uses a similar theatrical device of actors playing multiple parts, has been a huge hit both on Broadway and in regional theatres, and it has a plot that is full of intrigue and heightened moments of comedy that don't shortchange the story.

Set in the Victorian era, The Mystery of Irma story unfolds at the mansion of Lord Edgar Hillcrest, who is still in mourning his late wife Irma Vep. Edgar's second wife Lady Enid hasn't quite found her place in her new home, as Edgar's housekeeper Jane was clearly very devoted to Irma which makes Enid uncomfortable. Add in spooky, supernatural elements, vampires and werewolves, a trip to Egypt, secret rooms, and a reincarnated Egyptian princess and you have a comedy that pokes fun at many classic gothic and horror tropes while the characters try to unravel the mystery of just who killed Irma Vep.

Southwest Shakespeare Company's co-producing artistic directors, Betsy Mugavero and Quinn Mattfeld, who are also husband and wife, are both superb as the numerous characters they play. With a steady stream of fast-paced costume and wig changes as well as exceptional accent work, they create characters of both sexes who are distinct and original. They play off each other incredibly well and are very adept in adlibbing, which happened a couple of times at the performance I attended when something went amiss with a prop or sound cue. Mugavero and Mattfeld are having a ball throwing themselves into the characters they play, while also making things look easy.

Director Patrick Walsh, who also designed the fun set, has a good grasp on how to ensure the comedy in the play lands. With the contributions of Mugavero and Mattfeld, he keeps the pace tight, with the exception of one prolonged set change that, unfortunately, zaps the energy of the play at one point. Creative elements are lovely. In addition to Walsh's set and Beau Heckman's props that playfully play up the designs of the gothic period, Leann Jansen's fun costumes and Angela Kabasan's hair and make-up designs are simple enough for the necessary quick changes but distinct enough to make the characters appear unique. Lighting designer Stacey Walston and sound designer Peter Bish deliver some humorous and moody elements, including humorous sound effects.

While The Mystery of Irma Vep may not fare as well today as it did when it premiered 35 years ago, and there are definitely some shortcomings in the plot of the piece, when you have a talented cast like Southwest Shakespeare has, it still makes for two hours of silly fun.

Southwest Shakespeare Company's The Mystery of Irma Vep runs through November 9, 2019, at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street, Mesa AZ. For tickets and information, visit or call 480-644-6500.

Director/ Scenic Designer: Patrick Walsh
Costume Designer: Leann Jansen
Lighting Designer: Stacey Walston
Sound Designer: Peter Bish
Hair and Make-Up Designer: Angela Kabasan
Properties Designer: Beau Heckman
Fight Choreographer: Keath Hall
Stage Manager: Katie Ringwood

Nicodemus, Lady Enid, Alcazar: Betsy Mugavero*
Jane, Lord Edgar, An Intruder: Quinn Mattfeld*

* Appears courtesy of Actors' Equity Association