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THEATER REVIEW : Stoppard Double Bill Offers Multiple Delights

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As funny as Tom Stoppard’s plays are, it’s a mystery they aren’t performed more often. Blame forgetfulness, perhaps: More than 10 years have passed since Stoppard had a major hit. Yet his work remains relevant--which is why an opportunity to see the clever double bill at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, “The 15 Minute Hamlet” and “The Real Inspector Hound,” shouldn’t be passed up.

The source of Stoppard’s quirky humor is the plight of the common man, who is never going to be a king or prince or superstar of any sort. “The Real Inspector Hound” centers on a second-string theater critic who spends most of his time remembering his meager moments of glory, such as the time when he was quoted as calling a play “unforgettable,” even though he no longer can remember the name of it.

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The critic, named Moon and played by Brian Salmon, spends most of his time wishing for the first-string critic, Higgs, to die (his name is Moon because he can shine only when Higgs is gone). Moon and a fellow critic, Birdboot (Tim West)--who spends all his time ogling the actresses and plotting to trade good notices for after-play favors--both get literally swept up in the play they’re reviewing when, during intermission, Birdboot answers a persistently ringing on-stage phone.

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“The 15 Minute Hamlet” (actually 13 minutes with a two-minute reprise) uses the same actors as “Hound.” This time, though, the joke is different, aimed not at the characters on stage but at the audience, particularly the members of the television generation who prefer their masterpieces with commercials every fifteen minutes (and just the high points, please, without three or four hours of exposition).

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Under Tavis Ross’ deft direction, the performances in both plays crackle with intelligence and wit. Salmon--whose arched eyebrow is sufficient to signal trouble brewing--bubbles and explodes with mad magnificence as Moon. West keeps up as the licentious Birdboot, and the supporting players all provide solid work: Michael Schwarz as the slippery Simon in “Hound” and as a pained Hamlet; Susan Stratton as the melodramatic Cynthia in “Hound” and as the mad Ophelia in “Hamlet,” and Wendy Cullum as the mysterious Mrs. Drudge in “Hound” and a tormented Gertrude in “Hamlet.”

Resident set designer Marty Burnett has created the proper atmosphere with a heavy, stone-and-velvet draped stage aptly lit by Lisa M. Lane. The ever resourceful John-Bryan Davis dresses the characters in “Hound” impeccably, and Suzan Bennett provides suitable Elizabethan wear for “Hamlet.” It all adds up to a light evening with irresistibly dark Stoppardian undertones.

* “The 15 Minute Hamlet” and “The Real Inspector Hound,” North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 7. $14-$16. (619) 481-1055. Running time : 1 hour, 35 minutes. Tim West: Marcellus, Bernardo, Laertes, Horatio (“Hamlet”); Birdboot (“Hound”)

Douglas Lay: Francisco, Osric, Fortinbras, Gravedigger, Ghost (“Hamlet”); Inspector Hound (“Hound”)

Susan Stratton: Ophelia (“Hamlet”); Cynthia (“Hound”)

Wendy Cullum: Gertrude (“Hamlet”); Mrs. Drudge (“Hound”)

Michael Schwarz: Hamlet (“Hamlet”); Simon (“Hound”)

Brian Salmon: Shakespeare, Polonius (“Hamlet”); Moon (“Hound”)

Frank Baxter: Claudius (“Hamlet”); Magnus (“Hound”)

Lara Hope: Page (“Hamlet”); Felicity (“Hound”)

Peter Rose: BBC Voice (“Hound”)

A North Coast Repertory Theatre production of plays by Tom Stoppard, directed by Tavis Ross. Sets: Marty Burnett. Sound: Lawrence Czoka. Costumes: Suzan Bennett (“The 15 Minute Hamlet”), John-Bryan Davis (“The Real Inspector Hound”). Lights: Lisa M. Lane. Stage manager: Sue Schaffner.

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