Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Robert Currier
RUN: July 2 – August 15
RATING: 4.5 of 5 stars
This play is so entirely packed with intelligent fun that it is difficult to know where to begin. Although anyone can enjoy it, those with a basic knowledge of history, literature and art will reap infinite pleasure from the performance. Travesties is extremely demanding on its actors, but the Marin Shakespeare cast steps up eagerly to the task.
The setting is in Henry Carr’s memories of 1917 Zurich. It is not a strict historical play— since it is supposed to be an elderly man’s memories of days long ago. As a result there are a few technical inaccuracies from a mere documentation point of view, but who can object to the likes of Tristan Tzara, James Joyce and Lenin all tossed into one place?
For those not familiar with art history, Tristan Tzara was one of the leading Dada artists— a rather madcap movement during the early twentieth century. It’s sole purpose was mocking the current order, which its proponents believed had lead to World War I. In short, they behaved like petulant children in the eyes of society, but their contribution to the arts is undeniable. Darren Bridgett portrays Tzara in full physicality— he rolls head over heels across the stage, walks backward through doorways and shamelessly avails himself of the audiences food for those daft enough to sit in the front row. (A note: when attending Marin Shakespeare’s comedies for the first time, do not sit in the first row. Think of it like attending Seaworld shows.)
Also in Zurich at the time was James Joyce, author of Ulysses. He was an Irishman who developed the concept of a modernist novel and was famous for wearing mismatching suits. He struts his way through Travesties thanks to Lucas McClure. Though ultimately one of the more minor characters in the play, he is difficult to forget, due to McClure’s brilliant “straight man” style acting.
The main narrator of the play is an obscure British Consulate employee, portrayed by the far from obscure William Elsman, whom you might have seen in last year’s Mountain Play and throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. He alternates between an elderly Henry Carr, who can barely remember his own name, let alone what he was trying to talk about, and the Carr of 1917. It is a difficult character, because despite a well-groomed youthful spirit, Carr had only just returned from the horrors of the trenches when the play is set. At times a distant booming is heard, and Carr reverts to an almost childlike state for a few moments— a result of the trauma. He is hardly a tragic character, however, much of the amusement of the play is derived from his scenes.
There is a running joke throughout Travesties that Carr is obsessed with trousers. He is constantly describing what he wore, what other people wore, what he is thinking of purchasing. This is a result of a mini war betwixt Carr and the author of Travesties. They had put on a production of The Importance of Being Earnest together in Zurich where Carr had been Algernon. Considering the costuming far from adequate, Carr went out and purchased some trousers at his own expense. When he and Stoppard fell out, they ended up in court— Carr demanding the reimbursement for his trousers, and Stoppard demanding the reimbursement for some tickets he had given Carr. This proves that you should never upset a writer— the error will be immortalized!
Speaking of The Importance of Being Earnest, I would highly recommend reading, watching or listening to it before going to see Travesties. Three of the characters in this play are derived from Earnest, and there are a good many Earnest jokes that can easily be missed without a priori knowledge of the other play. Having been Cecily myself recently, I probably caught a lot more of the references than other members of the audience, and believe me there were quite a few.
The final duo of historical characters in the play is Lenin and Nadya. They have particularly difficult bits of dialog since they often speak in Russian to each other and have the longest speeches— mostly in the words of Lenin himself. If the rest of the characters in the play were taken out, and the Lenin related bits left in, it would be a very dull play indeed. Mostly they take turns giving his speeches or related letters to the audience straight on in perfect earnestness. It is here that Stoppard shines— in the background he creates absolute chaos. The antics going on during Lenin and Nadya’s speeches reduced at least half the audience to uncontrollable laughter, and yet it was mostly silent physical comedy, leaving Lenin’s words untouched, with occasional Mystery Science Theatre style comments from other characters. I believe that Stoppard could make the dullest most uninteresting historical subjects into absolute hilarity. If you’ve always thought you aught to read more about Lenin but never got around to doing it— now is your chance.
One of the main differences between Importance of Being Earnest and Travesties is sound design integrated with dialog. From the very opening of the play in the library, there is a rhythm of dialog, movement and even walking that all worked together to produce a sort of instrumentless music. There are several other scenes that are all in couplets, like the Legend of the Seeker episode Princess, and the examples go on. Currier’s staging and use of the sets also adds a great deal to the performance, particularly with the characters of Carr and Tzara who dangle, leap and romp around the stage, all while tossing whip-crack style dialog at each other (among other things).
In short, you are bound to have a diverting time, and possibly learn a few things about the general time period of the Great War as a result. The cast is excellent, and who can turn down a delightful outdoor picnic surrounded by a grove. The audience itself at Marin Shakespeare performances is enthusiastic and friendly. Buy tickets now, or show up for one of the “Pay What You Will” performances.