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Thou swells: (l-r) Colin, McKean, Mace and Wehle in On the Razzle.

By Ralph Hammann

On the Razzle

By Tom Stoppard, directed by David Jones

Williamstown Theatre Festival, through Aug. 14

Tom Stoppard’s On the Razzle is the most hilarious play of the season. I haven’t laughed this much since—well, since the Williamstown Theatre Festival presented Stoppard’s Travesties.

Stoppard constructed an elaborate plot (based on Viennese playwright Johann Nestroy’s 1842 play Einen Jux willer sich machen, or He Will Go on a Spree) enlivened by mistaken identities, coincidences, incongruities, unexpected arrivals, triumphant departures, puns, malapropisms and double entendres. It is populated at the WTF by 43 actors playing 42 colorful characters. To captain this daunting endeavor, artistic director Roger Rees wisely chose his mentor, director David Jones.

Chiefly presiding over the onstage antics is Herr Zangler, the self-important importer, whose perpetual and malapert malaprops are made even more hilarious by his haughtiness. Once he finds a tempo more moderato, Michael McKean is the very model of this immodest major befuddlement.

As Zangler’s major domo, Robert Stanton should also stick to a more articulate pace, but when he does he makes Weinberl such an earnest seeker of an adventure, or a “razzle” as Stoppard has it, that he fully engages our empathy—a quality that Jones is, thankfully, very careful to stress in his approach to farce. Offering avid support is John Lavelle as Christopher, a wiser cracker than he first seems.

A real delight is Melchior, a classic wiseacre servant straight out of Plautus, who cunningly ingratiates himself into Zangler’s employ as his personal factotum. Here, Aasif Mandvi has a bearing that bespeaks humorous volumes while he currys favor with the audience.

Sandra Shipley is a smartly tart Gertrud, the maid in charge of Zangler’s ersatz household, while Amber Gray is a scrumptious tart in the employ of Brenda Wehle’s delightfully daft Fraulein Blumenblatt—and in the clutches of Kevin McClarnon’s risibly randy coachman. Elsewhere, Cynthia Mace gushes with such elegance as befits Madame Knorr, the proprietress of a fashion salon.

If I seem to be giving short shrift to the women, it is because the show is chiefly propelled by the male characters. But there is one lady who stands out in this rather remarkable company. Whenever Margaret Colin is on stage as Frau Fischer, she commands our attention with her sublime demeanor, cool control and comically casual ac ceptance of the increasingly bizarre improvisation she finds herself playing when cast as Weinberl’s counterfeit consort.

The opening night was only occasionally marred by what seemed to be a backstage convention of clubfoots just after scene changes.

Canny Roger Rees seems to have been building up to this uncanny production, and with it he gives evidence that he can produce the old razzle-dazzle as well as anyone else.

Too Much Fun

The Taming of the Shrew

By William Shakespeare, directed by Daniela Varon

Shakespeare & Company, through Sept. 3

Shakespeare & Company excels at presenting scenes no other theater would dare do. The Capital Region is unusually rich in talented, daring female directors; yet not many would put their Kate in such theatrical peril as to perform a key monologue in the second half of the play to a live—albeit veteran—dog. Daniela Varon dares to task her Kate so.

Actors don’t like being onstage with animals because animals are honest, they do what they feel. So when Kate (the voluptuous and powerful Celia Madeoy), starved and sleep-deprived, complains to Troilus (an uncredited medium-sized black dog), the audience howls with laughter. Yet Kate never loses her focus or her desire. It’s a masterful moment in a production filled with antic displays.

Indeed, from the arresting opening, with the drunkard Christopher Sly (the wily William Walton) singing offstage only to stagger into the audience and vomit on a member, to the entrance of a traveling troupe of players who perform The Taming of the Shrew as an elaborate play-within-a-play prank, Varon fills the Founders Theatre with every classic physical and verbal device of comedy: pratfalls, spit takes, slapstick, juggling, tumbling, beatings of all kinds, misprisions, non sequiturs, the alienation effect and the travesty convention (that’s men dressing as women). There’s even a marvelous S&M variation on Kate beating her younger sister, Bianca (Stephanie Dodd), complete with hair pulling, bondage, cleavage tweaking, and spanking. Varon’s The Taming of the Shrew is an encyclopedia of comedy—all in Laura Crow’s rich Elizabethan costumes.

At nearly three hours’ running time, this Shrew needs the clowning to come fast and furious. In addition to the excellence of Kate and Troilus, Rocco Sisto makes for a manic Petruchio. The very archetype of masculinity in his long, curly chestnut hair and manly goatee, Sisto’s Petruchio is full of antic glee as he woos and tames Kate to be his equal—in a wisely staged scene that ameliorates Shrew’s surface misogyny. The ever-excellent Jonathan Croy adds to his resume winning performances as Kate’s father, Baptista, and as a French Tailor with an accent straight from Spamalot. Never was so much laughter achieved with so few lines. Croy displayed a timing so excellent, you could use him to cook by.

Unfortunately, as full of comic ploys as Varon’s Shrew is, it’s missing a comic essential: status transactions. Comedy is based on characters losing status, gaining status; that’s what makes comedies meaningful. Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is full of status changes with servants playing their masters and masters playing servants. Sadly, all the actors seem to be playing the same middling status, so nothing is at risk here. Fun it may be, and this Shrew gets laughs, but it’s hollow. And while there is an Elizabethan version of The Taming of a Shrew that concludes with a Christopher Sly scene (Shakespeare concludes his The Taming of the Shrew with a shared couplet by the unhappy husbands Hortensio and Lucentio), when Varon ends her Shrew with Queen Elizabeth strolling across the balcony as a sort of rex ex machina, the production runs off its laugh track in an effort to acquire a meaning it hasn’t earned. Fun this is, but illuminating it is not.

—James Yeara


The Vagina Monologues

By Eve Ensler, directed by Joy Kaczmarek

Studio Arts Entertainment, Saratoga Arts Council, through Aug. 27

Aware that I’d somehow missed yet another classic of modern theater, a few months ago I watched the DVD of Eve Ensler in one-woman performance of The Vagina Monologues, a show that, by now, has probably been done by every actress capable of sitting on a stool. To that list are now added three fine local actresses, in a staging that opens up Ensler’s strictly verbal interpretation in ways that enhance the words of the hundreds of women she interviewed.

The setup, if you’re as out of it as I was, is a series of characters based on one or more of the women Ensler talked to about their vaginas. Most had never been asked about them before, and some had never even seen them or given them much thought. Ensler asked leading questions: What would your vagina wear if it were going out? What does it smell like? What would it say? Some of the responses are tentative, skeptical; others dive right in to the metaphoric possibilities of the female genitalia.

Of the many scenes Ensler shaped from the answers she got, director Kaczmarek has chosen episodes that use each actor’s persona to its best advantage. Michelle Sumerlin-Yergan, solid and with her dark curly hair nicely shaped, has an appealing Earth Mother quality to her. In her monologues, she’s an embarrassed older woman, a pissed-off tough cookie (“Those exams? Who thought that up?”) and, in a segment reminiscent of the role Sumerlin-Yergan originated in Catching Babies, Ensler herself, present at the birth of her grandchild. Tall, blonde Eva Dolan, whose recent work includes a tribute to modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis, is artsy and athletic. She gets to be the Englishwoman who discovers herself in a Vagina Workshop, a Bosnian war-crime victim, and a Feifferesque dancing cunt. Melaina Balbo-Phipps, a newcomer to the area last heard as the voice of the adult Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird at Home Made Theatre, her blonde hair pulled back in a chignon, is cool and in control. When she talks about the ex-husband who made her shave her pubic hair, it’s obvious the man has no more power over her. Bob, who loved to look at it, is a fond memory for an urban sophisticate. And her professional lesbian dominatrix is a scream—better, if that’s possible, at re-creating her catalogue of women’s “power moans” than Ensler herself. The only character I didn’t enjoy was the 6-year-old; somehow it seemed it a little creepy to find a child involved in the very grown-up discussion going on.

The actors’ simple black outfits by Jeremy J. Buechner worked well, as did the interesting backdrop of paintings—a Hindu-like cross-legged goddess, a pair of shy knock-kneed legs—which suggested without showing all, designed by William Fritz. The turn-out at the Arts Center was impressive, given reports that Spa City storefronts shied away from displaying the production’s signs. But seeing the show again in such a worthy presentation makes me wonder what The Penis Monologues would be like: Surely that single-minded organ would have nowhere near as much to say.

—Kathy Ceceri

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