Published in Gay and Lesbian Times July 25, 2002
A rumpled old man sits huddled in a chair, reminiscing. His stream of consciousness is steady but unreliable. It’s 1974, but he’s back in Zurich, 1917. We feel the Great War, piercing our ears and rumbling under our seats. Its aftermath was a time of upheaval and rebellion, in social-political and artistic domains. And a lot of the foment was centered in Switzerland. Living in Zurich, at the same time, were groundbreaking Irish writer James Joyce (working on “Ulysses”), Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin (working, in exile, on overthrowing his government) and radical French-Romanian poet, Tristan Tzara (pen name of Samuel Rosenfeld, creating and disseminating the ideals of Dadaism).
Our doddering hero, one Henry Carr, is not a fictional character; he was a minor official at the British Consulate. He did, in fact, meet up with James Joyce, and perform the role of Algernon in a production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” And they did come to a head-to-head over a few francs, which culminated in a protracted legal battle. The rest is speculation, Carr’s onstage, and Tom Stoppard’s in the brilliant script.
Juxtaposed with these creators, Carr is the Everyman, the keeper of the status quo, defender of the bourgeoisie against which all the others are rebelling. His memory is so faulty, so real in its imperfect, myopic filter, that he, controlling what we see and know, actually replays scenes multiple times (to hilarious effect, as the actors onstage ‘rewind’ their moves, words and actions to start all over). The truth in all this is never quite clear, but it doesn’t really matter. The entertainment is intelligent and sublime.
In this 1974 farce, Stoppard, ever punch-drunk on language and philosophy, relishes the opportunity to present, at neck-snapping speed, parodies of Joycean limericks, Shakespearean sonnets, English Musical Hall humor, and most deliciously, the timeless lines of Oscar Wilde’s “Earnest.” You may have to watch the play a couple of times to catch every little reference and nuance. And it would be an excellent idea to see the North Coast Repertory Theatre production of Wilde’s masterpiece (which is running in repertory with “Travesties”) first. Even if you know little but listen hard, you’re bound to get some of the jokes, and likely to learn quite a bit of history, art and philosophy. The masterful treatises on war, politics, patriotism and revolution, though occasionally pedantic, are especially relevant at this time.
And the production is flawless. Co-directors Rosina Reynolds and Sean Murray have hit every note with perfect pitch. The lighting and sound are part of the impeccably orchestrated whole.
Murray is marvelous as the bureaucratic Carr, a man who’s so involved in his self-aggrandizement, he’s oblivious to his irrationality and absurdity, which only makes him more comical. The rest of the cast is no less expert, playing up their dual/counterpart roles in “Earnest” with aplomb.
Especially delicious is the musical duet between Gwendolen (Jessa Watson) and Cecily (Julie Jacobs), who sing their Wilde lines with classy vaudevillian finesse. Jim Chovick makes a delightful Lenin; he looks frighteningly like the old Russki. And Annie Hinton is comically credible as his wife, glorious Russian accent (and Russian dialogue!) and all. Jeffrey Jones is aptly outrageous and avant garde as Tzara, and James Saba is uproarious as Joyce (whom Tzara repeatedly calls by other female names: Janice, Phyllis, etc.). Don Loper, playing two butlers in “Earnest,” is an even funnier manservant here.
You might take a great double-dip and see the two plays in one day, so you could really recall and relish every line, presented in its original or twisted form. This is theater for the intelligentsia, to be sure. If you don’t like to think, stay home. But if you’re up to the challenge, you won’t be disappointed. The real travesty would be missing either of these stupendous productions.
“Travesties” continues through September 15, in repertory with “The Importance of Being Earnest,” at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach; 888-776-NCRT.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.