Stage Door Review 2023

On the Razzle

Tuesday, August 22, 2023


by Tom Stoppard, directed by Craig Hall

Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

May 26-October 8, 2023

Zangler: “One false move and we’ll have a farce on our hands”

If you are in the mood for show overflowing with extraordinarily witty fun, then look no further than On the Razzle at the Shaw Festival. It’s a play about two shop assistants out on a lark and Tom Stoppard wrote it as a lark in 1981. The play has all the accoutrements of farce, but, unlike most farces, the dialogue itself is as intricately clever as the plot. Contrary to what some may think, farce is one of the most difficult dramatic genres to bring off well. None of Craig Hall’s previous credits at the Shaw Festival (The Hound of the Baskervilles in 2018 or Faith Healer in 2013) indicated that he was attuned to farce. But this production shows that he is one of the directors who knows exactly how it works with the result that he carefully balances the precision of the acting with the controlled chaos of the plot.

The plot itself of On the Razzle may seem vaguely familiar because audience will likely have seen it in different guises. Stoppard’s play is an adaptation of the Viennese farce Einen Jux will er sich machen (He Wants to Go on a Spree) from 1842 by Johann Nepomuk Nestroy (1801-62), the premier writer of comedy in German with over 80 comedies to his credit, many of which are still mainstays in Germanophone countries.

Thornton Wilder, author of Our Town (1938), adapted the play twice – once as The Merchant of Yorkers in 1938 when it was a flop and again as The Matchmaker in 1954 when it was a hit. Wilder invented the character of the matchmaker Dolly Levi for both adaptations, increasing the role substantially for the 1954 version. The Matchmaker in turn became the basis for Jerry Herman’s 1964 musical Hello, Dolly! Ontarian theatre-goers have had the chance to see The Matchmaker at the Shaw Festival in 2000 and at the Stratford Festival in 2012. They have also had the chance to see Hello, Dolly! at the Stratford Festival in 2005.

Stoppard’s adaptation returns the action to its original setting of the 1840s in Austria rather than New York. He also gives the characters back their original names in Nestroy’s play and eliminates the character of Dolly. Stoppard’s plot remains very close to Nestroy’s but Stoppard has taken a very free hand with the dialogue. One reason that Nestroy is not well known outside Germanophone countries is that he not only wrote in Viennese dialect but uses all forms of word play and numerous local references which make his plays difficult to translate. Stoppard, extremely clever as he is, simply substitutes his own invented word play for Nestroy’s and cuts the local references. Stoppard, in fact, packs his dialogue so full of word play – puns, spoonerisms, malapropisms, double entendres, misheard words, botched allusions – that it is difficult, if not impossible, to take in all of Stoppard’s wit at one sitting.

The play’s main plot is one of the most ancient in all comedy – a rich older man refuses to allow a young woman to marry the poor young man she loves. Here the rich older man is Zangler, a grocer in a small town. The young woman is his niece Marie, whom he keeps locked up at home and then sends to her aunt in Vienna to keep her away from her suitor. The young man is August Sonders, who has no money, but is hoping for a legacy from his elderly aunt in Brussels.

To this plot Stoppard, following Nestroy, adds a parallel plot which in the course of the action comes to dominate the main plot and gives the play its title. This plot concerns Zangler’s two employees, Weinberl and the boy Christopher, whom Zangler in a moment of largesse raises up in rank and wages. Since Zangler will be absent for the day, Weinberl wants to celebrate by going on a spree, afraid, once he takes on greater responsibilities that this may be his last chance. He decides to go to Vienna and take along Christopher, who has never seen the big city.

Zangler has gone to Vienna to see his lady friend Madame Knorr, who runs a ladies’ House of Fashion. When Weinberl and Christopher happen to see Zangler coming their way, they rush into Madame Knorr’s boutique and dress themselves as the window mannequins, not knowing that Zangler is heading directly for Madame’s Knorr’s. And so Weinberl’s “spree” turns into a series of attempts to evade Zangler by, unintentionally, seeking refuge in the very places he is visiting. Mistaken and assumed identities abound. The plot is so tightly managed that at one point two people are introduced to each other while each one impersonating the other.

Craig Hall masterfully dictates the pace of the farce by beginning slowly, gradually picking up speed until reaching nearly breathless rapidity and then moving into a decrescendo until all the characters turn up at Zangler’s shop. Hall has also tightly choreographed the action so that the manipulation of props becomes almost as humorous as Stoppard’s manipulation of language.

The show is filled with delightful performances but top honours have to go to Ric Reid as Zangler. Reid wonderfully projects the personality of a man who is both pompous but also acutely aware of his deficiencies. Physically, he wants to impress Madame Knorr by appearing in the uniform of his rifleman’s club. At the same time Reid shows that Zangler can hardly walk or breathe when wearing it. Verbally, he constantly misspeaks especially when trying to be witty or authoritative, as in his line, “Call me a half-witted cab, you handsome idiot!” Reid’s mixture of Zangler’s bluster with fluster makes for one of the finest comic performances I’ve seen in a long time.

Mike Nadajewski and Kristi Frank make an ideal team as Weinberl and Christopher. (The role of the boy Christopher was originally played by a woman.) Nadajewski plays Weinberl as a would-be man of the world who is acutely aware that he hasn’t seen enough of the world to adopt that pose. Yet, compared to the completely innocent Christopher, Weinberl seems like a man of vast experience. Frank, in one of her best performances, makes us smile in sympathy with the naïveté of Christopher, for whom even the most mundane things are wonders simply because he’s never encountered them before. Nadajewski is especially funny showing how Weinberl’s fast talking and improvisation may get him out of one scrape only to land him in another.

Knowing that Sonder will try to flee with Marie, Zangler asks the servant Melchior to follow them and report their movements. Jonathan Tan fully brings out the humour in Melchior who is clearly brighter than Zangler and repeats Zangler’s remarks back to him just to show how illogical they are.

As is typical in most comedies from Plautus on, the ardent young lovers are comically rather bland. The two are so wrapped up in each other in romantic bliss they are mostly oblivious to the outside world except in how it impinges on them. Drew Plummer and Lindsay Wu well play the young lovers in this manner.

In smaller roles Claire Jullien is an easy-going Madame Knorr, Élodie Gillett is an intriguing Frau Fischer and Tara Rosling is a kindly Frau Blumenblatt, who is understandably confused by all the people in her house who claim to be other people.

Patrick Galligan counters all his portrayals of rational, serious characters with his no-holds-barred portrait of the randy coachman ready to set upon any female he claps eyes on.

On a less positive note it is rather too bad to see a young actor like Julie Lumsden playing Zangler’s elderly housekeeper with grey wig. The Shaw Festival used to have numerous female actors of the appropriate age for such roles and, besides its highschoolish look, it is insulting to them for the Shaw to resort to what one could call “greyface” to fill those parts.

Christina Poddubiuk’s sets and costumes are a joy. Her clever set when carefuly lit by Kimberly Purtell can represent both interiors and exteriors which only aids the play’s requirement for frequent changes of location. Poddubiuk also delightfully captures Stoppard’s notion that the Vienna of the period is currently undergoing a fad for all things Scottish, so that Poddubiuk comically mixes typical 19th-century gowns with clashing Scottish accents.

The whole production is joy from start to finish and serves as showcase not just for Nestroy’s ingenious plotting but for Stoppard’s unstoppable flow of wit. On the Razzle is surely the cleverest and most laugh-inducing comedy on offer at this year’s summer festivals.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Ric Reid as Zangler, Kristi Frank as Christopher and Mike Nadajewski as Weinberl;  Élodie Gillett as Frau Fischer, Mike Nadajewski as Weinberl, Kristi Frank as Christopher and Claire Jullien as Madame Knorr; Ric Reid as Zangler, Jonathan Tan as Melchior, Mike Nadajewski as Weinberl, Kristi Frank as Christopher, Claire Jullien as Madame Knorr, Éldoie Gillett as Frau Fischer and Graeme Kitagawa as Waiter; Mike Nadajewski as Weinberl, Lindsay Wu as Marie and Drew Plummer as Sonders. © 2023 Emily Cooper.

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