Word Plays

Works by two masters of verbal gymnastics receive entertaining treatments this week in St. Louis

On the Razzle
By Tom Stoppard
St. Louis Shakespeare Company

The Chairs
By Eugene Ionesco
City Players of St. Louis

Puns and spoonerisms, non sequiturs, echolalia -- are any gymnastics more vigorous than linguistic ones? Two masters of this variety of wordplay, Tom Stoppard and Eugene Ionesco, are currently receiving fine local productions, and the gymnastics aren't just verbal. The St. Louis Shakespeare Company is mounting Stoppard's early-'80s comedy On the Razzle, and the recently revived City Players tackle Ionesco's midcentury "tragic farce" The Chairs. Both Romanian-born Ionesco and Czech-born Stoppard chose languages other than their native ones for their theatrical works (French and English, respectively). Like their literary compatriot Vladimir Nabokov, who also chose another tongue for his work, expressiveness and richness of vocabulary sometimes take the place of plot and characterization, but no matter -- the results are entertaining.

On the Razzle is based on Johann Nestroy's Einen Fux will er sich machen, a comedy of the early Victorian period that received a prior adaptation as Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker. Stoppard's play concerns two naïve but winning grocery-store clerks in a suburb of Vienna at the turn of the last century. Weinberl and Christopher are under the thumb of Herr Zangler, their militaristic but distracted boss. He's more concerned about impressing his fiancée, Madame Knorr, and keeping fortune-hunter Sonders away from his innocent niece Marie -- and making sure his nice new Prussian uniform fits for the parade downtown. Add Melchior, a new servant committed to the catchphrase "classic," and the prospect of an illicit night on the town (going "on the razzle," as it were) for the clerks, and the ensuing hijinks expand exponentially. Because this is Stoppard World, the latest fashion in Vienna is Scottish garb (thanks to Verdi's Macbeth). Actors wear all manner of tartan and conveniently voluminous plaid cloaks -- the better to conceal one's identity.

Director Donna Northcott has shaped this production of On the Razzle with a jeweler's timing for the physical comedy. The introductory pantomime is delightful as customers weave in and out of the shop like thread shuttling through a mechanical loom, all accompanied by Strauss. Characters leap and lope, toss apples and bon mots with great gusto, and the entire cast gets stronger as the performance unfolds, though there are some problems with diction and articulation. Stoppard requires great effort on the part of actors, who are given brilliantly brief dialogue -- there are almost no lengthy speeches -- and plenty of rat-a-tat-tat patter. It's easy to imagine Groucho or Chico Marx in almost any of the principal roles, and the vaudevillian pattern of setup and payoff is one that the playwright has taken to dizzying heights.

Autocratic grocer Herr Zangler is played by Rory Flynn as both officious and oblivious, the kind of gruffly vague military man who's a staple in British comedy. Stoppard has given him the lion's share of witty puns, which requires that the actor have a great deal of confidence as he's garbling his orders. At the performance I saw, Flynn's delivery was almost too staccato, as if the lines had been a great trial to learn but had finally been nailed down -- thank the Lord. Happily, his performance only improved, and he physically suited the part, wearing a splendid period curled mustache and throwing back his shoulders tyrannically. His interactions with the smooth servant Melchior (John O'Hearn) were most effective when they put pauses in: Stoppard makes it clear that these two do listen to one another -- they just don't necessarily hear everything that's said.

As the lovers Marie and Sonders, Rachel Jackson and Jim Ousley have marvelous scenes of stolen kisses and snatched moments. (Or is that vice versa? A day with Tom Stoppard's text makes one question discourse in general and colloquialism in particular.) These two perform a pas de deux of illicit romance, and Jackson milks her tagline -- "It's not proper" -- with increasing hilarity. But their passionate embraces are just window dressing for the main plotline, which concerns Weinberl and Christopher's aspirations to the beau monde -- at least for the day. And here the audience is in for a treat. Robert Neblett and Drew Bell, as Weinberl and Christopher, respectively, are a magnificent comedy duo. They shine at both physical comedy and verbal dexterity -- no small feat, because they're seldom offstage. As the first act unfolds, they end up romancing their boss' fiancée and her friend, a predicament that eventually leads them to the home of Fraulein Blumenblatt, where Herr Zangler planned to stash his errant niece. Bell and Neblett have a rich palette of expressions to draw from -- everything from anxiety to confusion, with the occasional veer into smug delight.

These two have a galvanizing effect on the actors working with them. When they arrive at Knorr's Fashion House, Weinberl needs to make up a story to dodge Zangler, so he pretends to be married to Frau Fischer (Kelly Schnider), who then inconveniently shows up, much to the delight of Madame Knorr. Schnider has the Hardyesque role of firing condemning looks at Weinberl's Laurelian posturing, which she does with great aplomb. Patty Unterreiner's Madame Knorr is a merry soul, and these two have a great deal of fun when they sweep Weinberl and Christopher off to the Imperial Gardens Restaurant -- a café they can ill afford. But I'm not sure why Philippine (Ret DeBrown) played the milliner's servant with quite so much shuffling and sho-nuff posturing -- the juxtaposition of minstrelsy styles with brittle drawing-room farce is jarring. In a small but potent role, Diane Hartke is a touch young for the part of Fraulein Blumenblatt but plays this lovelorn sap with great affection. (And a salute to sound designer Milt Zoth, who is responsible, one presumes, for the violin wails anytime the fraulein alludes to her own lost love, who was -- literally -- a stranger on a train.) Tijuana Ricks plays Gertrud of the grocery store as excitable but efficient. And Jason Cannon is glorious as the priapic coachman who seduces French maid Lisette (Roxane Vafi). On the whole, this Razzle is a dazzle and a delight.

Though On the Razzle borrows elements from the theater of the absurd, Stoppard's work is a postmodern fusion of literary allusion, conventional (to a point) plotting and ever-accelerating raillery. If you want to have a look at an original inspiration, go see City Players' production of Ionesco's The Chairs. The two oldsters at the center of this one-act have language aplenty at their disposal yet wait for an Orator to speak to the audience -- a pause that lasts for nearly the entire play. Imagine that you finally do wait long enough for Godot, and he turns out to be a deaf-mute (winningly played by Mark Moloney). No, I'm not giving anything away to tell you that.

The Old Man (Christopher Limber) and Old Woman (Pamela Christian) have been married for 75 years -- so long, the Old Man explains, that "when we were young, the moon was a living star." The Chairs concerns their plans to host a lecture -- they set up chairs and welcome guests (all imaginary) to their "island home." In they troop, in our mind's eye -- a lady, a photoengraver, journalists, a colonel -- all carefully described by Ionesco in his stage directions but never to be seen by a living audience member. By the conclusion of the play, the stage should be littered with chairs, and one should feel that the stage is bursting with personalities.

Now, if you've ever spent time in a nursing-home dayroom, you've experienced unscripted theater of the absurd. Someone in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease will spontaneously utter word salad that defies logic but has a poetic grace all its own. The Old Man and Woman were revolutionary in their day, a half-century earlier. Yet what do Ionesco's friendly japes at existentialism, Paris as the center of the universe and knee-jerk fealty to royalty mean to us today? Are we meant to see this pair as sadly deluded because they think they need a third party to "tell their story"? Do their comments about aging have more significance in an era of prolonged life expectancy? Or is it just, like, absurd?

This production is staged at the Crossroads School's black box of a theater, with a small central playing space and chairs (for the real audience) on three sides. There are some smart touches here, and fine sound design by Michele Dvorak, who provides glockenspiel effects to accent scenes. Yet one wishes director Julie Krieckhaus had been able to rein in her principals. Limber and Christian are supposed to be playing nonagenarians and then -- as the imaginary audience enters -- become more and more youthful and invigorated, or at least that's how I read the play. These two come on like gangbusters, which means there isn't anyplace to go when the madness of the guests arriving crescendoes. But they are mesmerizing (which is good, because in so small a space, there aren't many other places to look), and their affection for each other seems genuine. Christian is a limber actor, whereas Limber is -- well, let's move on and just say that Ionesco would undoubtedly salute the company for playing as if the house were full to bursting.

Both On the Razzle and The Chairs continue through Aug. 13.

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