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THEATER / RICHARD STAYTON : 'Schippel' Plumbs the Farce for Hilarity and Deeper Text

February 18, 1994|RICHARD STAYTON

LONG BEACH — The words don't roll off the tongue: "Schippel, the Plumber." It's a lead-pipe title that clunks, a savvy show biz promoter's nightmare.

You'd expect to find Schippel in the Yellow Pages; it's a name you'd picture on the door of a battered pickup, not on a theater poster.

So what happens? California Repertory Company joins forces with the Goethe-Institut in Los Angeles to give "Schippel, the Plumber" its American premiere at Cal State Long Beach.

Too bad. Now we're forced to recommend the lunacy to friends.

Imagine the awkward phone calls. "You gotta see 'Schippel.' It's a hoot."

"Who?"

" 'Schippel!' 'Schippel, the Plumber!' "

"A plumber?"

"No! A farce!"

The play is by late British playwright C.P. Taylor, best known for the 1982 Broadway play "Good." It's adapted from Carl Sternheim's Expressionist satire of upper-class pretensions, "Paul Schippel."

The year is 1914. We're in the city of Kassle, Germany. An award-winning vocal quartet has lost a tenor to the grim reaper and now must replace his sterling voice. Alas, the best available voice belongs to a plumber named Schippel (here played by Thomas Killinger).

*

Do we care? Is this entertainment?

We do, and it is.

Despite the old-fashioned structure, "Schippel, the Plumber" is often hilarious, occasionally inspired and always amusing. Applause must go to director Steve McCue, whose brisk pacing and intricate blocking create stage pictures reminiscent of silent movie slapstick. And applause must celebrate the superb cast's droll timing.

But credit must also go to a text that allowed Taylor to gently explore his preoccupation with the roots of Nazism. Schippel's low social status is compounded by the fact that he's "a bastard," according to the other singers. Such obscure origins clash with their belief that they represent "a new class of humanity evolving a higher class of men."

More than plumbing keeps the quartet from harmonizing. Anti-Semitism repeatedly strikes the wrong note. But the impending tragedy is muted, kept behind luxurious curtains and on a romantic balcony where a wanna-be Juliet fumbles with inept Romeos.

Worse than Schippel's profession is his intolerable love of the clarinet. Just when it's been decided that the bourgeoise is too good for "the filthy" plumber, a curious rescue changes everyone's perspective.

The ensemble has been shrewdly cast with an ear to individual musical talents. A piano becomes much more than a prop as it's played, repeatedly and beautifully, by the gifted comedian Kimberly Seder (portraying the lovely damsel pursued by clumsy males). She might fail at chopsticks, but Mozart? No problem.

A problem does exist, however, with Killinger's voice, which loses clarity as the long evening draws to a close. But Killinger's herky-jerky mannerisms splendidly project lower-class feelings of social inferiority, while his awkward struggles with a plumber's ladder prove the perfect metaphor for frustrated class ambitions. Above all, his singing--like everyone's in the cast--is lyrical and lovely.

Armando Jose Duran, Richard P. Gang and Jeff Paul are the snobs who can sing but can't tolerate difference. They fumble and stumble like a classic comic trio, unconsciously imitating each other in a kind of pack mentality that eerily anticipates the impending holocaust.

Perhaps this title isn't so odd. "Schippel, the Plumber," meet "Schindler's List."

* "Schippel, the Plumber" continues through March 5 at California Repertory Company, 7th & West Campus Drive, Cal State Long Beach. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Feb. 26. $15. (310) 985-5526. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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