Eugene Weekly : Theater : 4.3.08

Wild Yawps, Whinnies and Props
On the Razzle dazzles the eyes and ears

Sheer, unadulterated fun: That’s the point, and the experience, of Tom Stoppard’s fantastic farce On the Razzle, now playing at the Very Little Theatre.

Zangler (Michael Walker) interviews his new servant Melchior (Michael Watkins). PHOTO JOHN BAUGUESS

And a joyful experience the show definitely is — except for the part where audience laughter blows eardrums and overrides some of Stoppard’s trademark language. OK, the show’s not perfect (I’ll elaborate in a minute), but for a volunteer-run organization, the VLT has scored a coup in this arch but warm laugh-a-minute production. More than the successful staging of a nine-door, several-staircase, ridiculously pun-filled romp, this show gives the VLT’s community theater status a chance to shine.

On the Razzle, which graced the stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last season and provided a much-needed break from the more tragic fare on offer, scores some points for the intellect with its humorous look at both the dangers and the thrills of joining the bourgeoisie in nineteenth-century Vienna. That may not sound like the kind of thing that would have a young woman with an Obama clipboard snorting and squealing with joy, but trust me, said young woman (seated behind me) was far from alone in not being able to contain her exuberance.

More experienced VLT attendees in the crowd also do their part to ensure that the actors know their mammoth efforts will be rewarded. When VLT publicist and longtime member Scott Barkhurst walks onstage as a tailor, applause sweeps the room. Even the actors have to work hard not to laugh. The night I attended the show, the usually professional Michael Walker, playing the gruff, spoonerism-spouting Herr Zangler, looked damn lucky to have a moustache to hide his twitching lips. Zangler’s uniform, like the “horse” Lightning, earns some of the stronger laughs in a hilarity filled perfomance, and Walker milks the uniform trope for perhaps more than it’s worth.

And yet some things might have worked better. Zach Merrill, playing Weinberl’s assistant and sidekick Christopher, needs a bit more of an edge. Some silly, extremely VLT business with extraneous actors randomly drifting across the stage in nice costumes could go without much loss (unless it’s loss to the egos of those extras, but that’s a risk I’d be willing to take). And the principals need to give the audience, in the midst of gales of laughter, time to wind down; otherwise, even more funny lines fall unheard into the noise.

One thing about On the Razzle: In some ways, like most Stoppard plays, the nuances get lost on stage because the man uses so many words (and a whipped-up pile of puns and gags) that even the most alert audience member can’t catch them all. Yet the cast steps up to utter most of the complex lines with flair. Sharon Wetterling offers a deadpan imitation of the Shakespeare Festival’s Eileen DeSandre as cook/maid Gertrud, and UO grad Cate Wolfenbarger — though she’s too young for the role — garners serious audience approval with her sparkling portrayal of Madame Knorr. And while I don’t wish to be one of those theater writers who list every cast member, I must say that Don Aday’s Coachman is spot-on (much less excessive than Michael Elich’s at the OSF, surprisingly, for which I am grateful), and Michael Watkins’ Melchior provides many a humorous moment as well.

In a cast of 23 (!) with such an elaborate set and so many possibilities for physical mishap, this group performs remarkably well — kudos to director Chris Pinto and to the no doubt exhausted stage manager and props people. If you expect perfection, this is not the show (or the theater) for you, but all Razzle really asks is that the cast enjoy themselves and ensure the audience has a great time. The VLT nails both.


On the Razzle runs through April 19 at the VLT. Tix available at 344-7751.