This is a wild, zany, Dada like, and very serious play. It’s set mainly in Zurich in 1917 where swarms of intensely creative people migrated to the neutral Swiss city seeking refuge from World War I. The place bubbled with the ferment and excitement of their new and revolutionary ideas. What fun it seems to have been there -- here’s your chance.
James Joyce was there working on Ulysses, Tristan Tzara was spearheading the “anti-art” Dada movement, and Lenin was on his way to leading the Russian Revolution. Henry Carr, a British consular official of the time, was in the middle of all of it -- or was he? In Travesties, Carr, now a pretentious, forgetful old man, looks back and remembers himself as the British Consul General -- though he held a lower rank -- and recalls through his fragmented memory Joyce, Tzara and Lenin with whom he interacted -- or thinks he did. Through his memories and mis-memories, they spring into vibrant on-stage life.
As far as interactions, this much is fact: at the time the real Henry Carr played the part of Algernon in a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest produced by James Joyce and, in a dispute over the price of tickets and a pair of trousers, sued Joyce in court. Stoppard conceives this tricky play, Travesties, as a kind of satire -- i.e. a travesty -- of Wilde’s Earnest, and like Wilde in Earnest, he engages the characters -- and hopefully the audience -- in hot if meandering debate over the nature and purpose of art, and the relation of art to life.
How wonderful that the brilliant and charismatic actor, Richard Kind, is at the center of this production in the role of Henry Carr. Kind is hilarious, focused and profound. If, as can happen, you find the anti-rational, anti-formal, anti-traditional exuberance of Dada, embodied in Michael Benz as Tristan Tzara, leaping on tables and cutting up Shakespeare’s sonnets, irksome, or if you find just too much theory at play, Kind will keep you smiling, laughing, glowing -- and listening intently.
Although commentators like to say that Travesties is “not a history lesson,” it spends time verging on one -- one feels one’s being briefed -- but the great wit and dazzling word play -- and exciting literary and cultural allusions for those who can catch them -- are delicious sugar coatings.
In contrast to the first act, the second act has something resembling a driving narrative focused on Vladimir Lenin’s struggle to get to Russia at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution and his arrival there. Andrew Weems’ impersonation of the passionately speechifying Lenin is so persuasive, those Russians who would visit Lenin’s glass-entombed mummy yearning to set eyes on the Revolutionary leader would do better to see this play: seriously, Weems brings the posters of the period to life, and humorously.
By the end, the playwright has had his way: through the deconstructions and dissonances, the great issues of the relation of art and life, and of the role of memory, perception and imagination in art, emerge with clarity that is both new and intact. And Stoppard is fair in balancing the scales of articulate expression. Tzara has demolished the forms and disciplines of art of the past, Joyce has reconstructed them in progressive ways never before envisioned, and Lenin has demonstrated the uselessness and immorality of hyper-individualistic “bourgeois art.” Everybody’s right, everybody’s incomplete: the philosophers are busy with the elephant again. Somehow, though, through it all, Oscar Wilde’s belief in the autonomy of art and “art for art’s sake” seems to win out -- or does it?
The play is produced with tone perfect style: the set is witty and evocative, the pace brisk, the roles perfectly cast and the whole exceptionally well rehearsed. In addition to Kind as Carr, Weems as Lenin and Benz as Tzara, Carson Elrod plays James Joyce, Aloysius Gigi plays Bennett, Julia Motyka is Gwendolen, Emily Trask is Cecily, and Isabel Keating is Nadya.
And by the way, Joyce got back at Carr for that legal action in his own novelist’s way -- parodying him in Ulysses as a drunk, obscene soldier (in the Circe segment). Between Joyce and Stoppard, Carr lives forever -- though surely not in the way one wants to be immortalized by literature!
Travesties plays at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island, NY through July 20, 2014. For more information and tickets, go to http://www.baystreet.org/calendar?
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