On Stage: 'Razzle' not the typical Perseverance fare

Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2002

Michael Christenson

"On the Razzle" has been described as "light as a Viennese cream puff" and "everything you can expect from a play of no substance whatsoever," so of course I will put forth the contrarian view here.

This play is not the fluff many critics and reviewers would lead you to believe. Herr Zangler (Rick Bundy) a grocer with airs, forbids his niece to marry a man of no apparent means. Herr Weinberl misleads a woman into thinking that he owns the shop where he's simply the assistant. His speech at dinner and the shoptalk about servant, slave and master show that this play is actually a thinly veiled battle between the working class and the bourgeoisie.

Trenchant social criticism is one of the three classic elements of farce (the other two being slapstick and either ribald repartee or cross-dressing, I forget which.) Therefore, this play is actually Marxist -- Groucho Marxist.

"On the Razzle," an adaptation by Tom Stoppard of a 19th century play, cleaves to the mythical theme of two bumpkins hitting the big city with tiny brushes and a half ounce of red paint. Ibn R. Bailey as Weinberl, the chief sales assistant, and Emily Windover as Christopher, the apprentice sales assistant, are two rubes that crave paved roads. They want to acquire a past before it's too late and go into Vienna for a spree.

A little history

"On the Razzle" by Tom Stoppard is an adaptation of an 1841 farce by Viennese playwright Johann Nestroy.

Two other plays have been based on this same material: Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker" (which was whipped into a flavorsome fluff in 1958 with Anthony Perkins and Shirley MacLaine as the romantic interest), and Jerry Herman's "Hello, Dolly!" (which was over-produced by Gene Kelly and starred Barbra Streisand as Dolly.)

Stoppard is not only an award-winning playwright (with as many Tonys as Neil Simon) but also a scriptwriter. A few of the films he worked on were "Brazil" (1985), "Empire of the Sun (1987), "The Russia House," (1990), "Shakespeare in Love" (1998) and my personal favorite, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" (1990). He wrote "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" as a play in 1968 and also directed the movie, starring Tim Roth and Gary Oldman.

The Vienna of "On the Razzle" was a cosmopolitan center of culture. The Modernism movement was born there, and Sigmund Freud, composer Arnold Schoenberg and artist Gustav Klimt were part of the creative maelstrom of the time.

This is a very traditional production, which I find amusing. When one considers that the Vienna of that time was the "experimental station for the end of the world" it is ironic. No one wears a mask or runs around in his underwear. In other words, it's an atypical Perseverance production.

Perseverance has developed a certain style over the years. I have never examined it before, for there was nothing with which to compare it. It is only thrown into high relief when they deviate from it.

Typical elements of the Perseverance style would have to be complicated but minimal and often abstract sets, dramatic lighting, smallish casts and occasional use of stylized motion. Most elements of this play deviate from that style. To begin with, there are 23 characters, portrayed by 15 actors, which is a larger-than-average cast for Perseverance.

The lighting is remarkable in that it's unremarkable. It doesn't try to be a dramatic actor; it doesn't defy the laws of physics; it doesn't create a spectacle and draw attention to itself. It just efficiently lights the things that need to be lit so you can see. During the set changes, it does get a little flashy, mimicking moonlight through the trees, just to remind you that it can, but then it goes back to a more straight-forward style.

The sound design is similarly functional. There are waltzes (appropriate for Vienna,) polkas and bagpipes. (Vienna is in the grips of a Scottish fad.) The sound is well-balanced.

Even casting Christopher as a woman is not an unprecedented decision. Emily Windover (who is excellent and eminently watchable) is a woman portraying a man disguised as a woman, which Stoppard returns to in "Shakespeare in Love" where Gwyneth Paltrow portrays a woman disguised as a man playing a woman. In fact, most of Shakespeare's comedies can be briefly summarized as "boys portraying women disguised as men."

I don't usually critique the audience, but it was obvious on opening night that their timing was off. They would laugh when a funny line was delivered, and then they would laugh a moment later when they got the double entendre. By that point, the other half of the audience would be laughing at the next funny line, the end result being sporadic waves of laughter washing over the audience that made one miss some of the lines. Then I'd have to laugh twice to catch up with everybody else.

Stoppard is a genius of warped repartee. If you are looking for a straight-forward production of a wonderful bit of frivolity, "On the Razzle" is the just the ticket.

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