Czechoslovakian-born, English playwright Tom Stoppard practices his craft with a sense of humor honed by years of exposure to such British institutions as Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Silliness, punning and a relatively high degree of literacy are important to such works as "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," "Travesties" and the two one-act Stoppard plays presented this weekend by Cal Lutheran University, "The Real Inspector Hound" and "After Magritte."
First produced in 1967, "The Real Inspector Hound" is a current Broadway hit in revival. It's a timeless farce, Stoppard's version of a British drawing-room mystery such as Agatha Christie's venerable "The Mousetrap." As is typical for the author, Stoppard's approach turns the entire genre on its ear.
It's a play-within-a-play, observed onstage by two "critics," who comment on the action while it's going on. A simultaneous drama occurs between the critics.
One critic lusts after at least one of the actresses onstage, and the other is his paper's resentful second-stringer, always sent to review the plays that the senior critic, now missing in action, deems to be beneath him. (Stoppard, who had spent some time as a theater critic, knows whereof he writes.)
Meanwhile, those in the group assembled at Muldoon Manor are having their own problems, involving a romantic triangle, an escaped lunatic and a mysterious stranger.
And then things begin to get really peculiar.
Enormous fun, this isn't easy to perform with the requisite straight faces and prim accents. The Cal Lutheran crew, under the direction of Assistant Prof. Kenneth Gardner, pulls it off relatively well; there was certainly no lack of laughter on opening night last week.
K. Leigh Sandness is featured as Countess Cynthia Muldoon, the lady of Muldoon Manor, and Richard Anderson is Major Magnus Muldoon, the long-lost brother of Cynthia's long-dead husband. Michelle Tibbs plays Cynthia's flirtatious friend Felicity Cunningham, and James Doorn appears as Inspector Hound, who stumbles into the manor while searching for the escaped lunatic. Sean Atkins, wearing a swallowtail coat and greasepaint mustache only slightly smaller than Groucho Marx's, is the mysterious and oily Simon.
Many of the funniest lines go to Jennifer Joseph as Mrs. Drudge, the appropriately named Muldoon maid, who supplies much of the play's exposition accompanied by ominous thunderclaps. And there's that dead body (Shaun Travers in an appropriately stiff performance) that remains on stage, unnoticed by the cast, for a good part of the play.
On Broadway, the evening is being opened with Stoppard's "The Fifteen-Minute Hamlet," which is just that. The first two-act at Cal Lutheran, on the other hand, is "After Magritte," the Stoppard play that opened the original double-bill a quarter-century ago.
A wisp of a script, "Magritte" makes "Hound" look like the real "Hamlet." Again, the scene is England, and again, the play is a parody of the detective genre. The cast includes Sam Cooper, Wendy Steiner, Deanna Milsap, Aaron Peter and Richard Anderson.
Though Stoppard's title is a pun of sorts--something has happened to people leaving an exhibit of the Belgian painter Rene Magritte--the playwright is also playing tribute to Magritte's surrealistic style.
It doesn't really work, thanks in part to the cast's wide range of bad accents and the tendency of one principal to speak at a very low volume. Then there is Stoppard's manic script, which simply doesn't make much sense. To some degree, it's fun to watch the nonsense flit by, though, and "After Magritte" lasts less than half an hour.
* WHERE AND WHEN
"The Real Inspector Hound" and "After Magritte"conclude this weekend at California Lutheran University's Little Theatre, 60 W. Olsen Road in Thousand Oaks. Performances will take place Thursday through Saturday nights at 8 p.m., with a matinee Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are free to CLU staff and students; $5 to the general public. For reservations (which are recommended) or further information, call 493-3410.