In the OSF production of Tom Stoppard’s On the Razzle, Weinberl (Rex Young, right) appears in the nick of time, as an astonished Zangler (Tony DeBruno, center) reacts and Christopher (Tasso Feldman) looks on. Photo by David Cooper.
Playwright Tom Stoppard, who turned 70 on July 3, is having quite a year. After a triumphant run at Lincoln Center, his epic nine-hour trilogy, Coast of Utopia , won more Tony Awards than any drama in history. And his newest play, Rock ‘n’ Roll , is Broadway-bound.
He’s had other great years (it was his fourth Tony for Best Play) but in a recent interview Stoppard reiterated that as a playwright, “You don’t succeed unless you’re writing something that will be revived.” In a 1994 interview Stoppard named his 1981 farce, On the Razzle , as the play he most wanted done again. That the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of On the Razzle is one of their current season’s triumphs must add to this year’s satisfactions.
Beginning with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in the late ’60s, Stoppard’s string of witty and intelligently madcap plays for stage, television and radio made him an international phenomenon. By 1981, this former theatre reviewer for provincial publications was living in a fashionable London district, in a house older than the United States. But his plays were about to change: first with a new infusion of emotion and more recognizable characters (particularly women) in The Real Thing (1982), and then combining this with historical depth and delicately rendered explorations of meaning in the subsequent plays ( Arcadia,Indian Ink , The Invention of Love , etc.), leading to his most recent.
But before he let go of the frenzied verbal gymnastics and headlong comedy, Stoppard powered those energies into the basic plot and characters from the 19th century Austrian playwright Johann Nestoy, and went On the Razzle — that is, on a heedless spree, a wide-eyed adventure — at full throttle: Stoppard running Wilde.
Which is not to say that this play is just a bag of puns and pratfalls. The puns and double entendres are certainly there (“Unhand my foot, sir!”; “I love your niece!”; “My knees , sir?” etc.), but there is no more exacting form than farce. It is a deceptively simple mechanism — you wind it all up in the first act, and let it spin wildly to its conclusion in the second — but it’s not easy to do. In all his plays Stoppard explores revelations from structure, so he was well equipped to create a classic farce.
The OSF production, as directed by Laird Williamson, understands this mechanism. Late in the play, a character complains of people running in and out of her house like a “cuckoo-clock gone mad.” This is the image the play begins with, as the actors take the stage with the jerky motions of cuckoo-clock figures in procession. The image also fits the place and period: 19th century Austria. A pompous provincial shopkeeper (played with a touch of W.C. Fields by Tony DeBruno) leaves his grocery store in the hands of two clerks while he goes to Vienna to propose marriage. But the clerks (Rex Young and Tasso Feldman) go to Vienna as well, for a last youthful adventure.
There are other complications involving a niece (Teri Watts) and her suitor (Shad Willigham), a comic servant (G. Valmont Thomas), the fiancée (Suzanne Irving) and her widow friend (Terri McMahon) and other characters. There are disguises, mistaken identities, role reversals, miscommunication and of course lots of coincidence in this good-hearted, fast-paced farce that relocates some of Nestoy’s satire (as in a brilliant speech about merchants) but basically provides one funny surprise after another.
This is a sumptuous production, a delight to the eye and ear. I suppose my only slight disappointment was in not hearing an English cast perform it. Though Stoppard translates easily to American idiom, the rhythms of language are very English, as the very English title suggests.
Here’s a tidbit of its history that illustrates that happy accidents are not just part of the story, but were part of creating the play: Its first production was in technical rehearsal (which is very near the end) when a “flaming pudding” Stoppard wanted in a restaurant scene was nixed because of fire regulations. Since Stoppard involves himself in the process, he was there to suggest the alternative: a birthday cake with electrically lit candles. But then he had to decide whose birthday it was. This involved rewriting many scenes back, and added another layer of the comic cake in the restaurant pay-off.
Last time around, I wrote about the roots of theatre in ancient festivals. As formal theatre became part of festivals with summer productions outdoors, some began to specialize — mostly in Shakespeare. Another summer theatre tradition began in the early 20th century, when people fled hot cities like New York for the cooler countryside, and indoor summer theatres like the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut were born. (There’s a fascinating book about it from Yale Press called An American Theatre .) Many country theatres featured lighter entertainments, but others experimented with new plays and challenging productions, as Westport did and does, joined by newer theatres like the Wellfleet on Cape Cod.
The two traditions merged in indoor Shakespeare festivals, like the one I used to attend in the Elsinore-like stone Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh, or in the most successful all-season venues like Stratford, Ontario and of course, Ashland, Oregon.
There the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is now in full swing, with Shakespeare’s The Tempest , Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, As You Like It and August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean as well as Stoppard’s On the Razzle in the main Bowmer Theatre, to be joined by their Tartuffe later this month. Lisa Loomer’s Distracted has just opened at the New Theatre, where the musical Tracy’s Tiger continues.
Here on the North Coast, there are two productions this weekend. Based partly on a story by Italian playwright Dario Fo and partially created as a thesis project last year at the Dell’Arte School, The Greatest Story Never Told is described as a farce involving the meeting of two tramps and the Christian Holy Family, as brokered by angels. It’s up next at the Mad River Festival, July 12-14 in the Carlo Theatre. It’s the work of the Virginia-based Independently Creative troupe, composed of Dell’Arte alums. The production is supported by an alumni fund to commemorate a Dell’Arte classmate, Nancy Lafrenz, who died of cancer. “Her class raised a bunch of money,” Michael Fields explained, “and so did her parents. We’ve invited them to the opening, and the production is in her memory.”
Also this weekend, Ferndale Rep opens Taking My Turn , a musical revue about and by seniors. It plays at the Rep on July 13 at 8 p.m., with matinees July 14 and 15 at 2 p.m., then goes on the road for a July 22 show at the Senior Resource Center in Eureka, and one on July 29 at the Garberville Theatre.