KPBS AIRDATE: August 2, 2002
First, the Great War rumbles under our seats. And then we catch sight of him…the rumpled old man sitting huddled in a chair, reminiscing. His stream of consciousness is steady but unreliable. It’s 1974, but he’s back in Zurich, 1917, a time of upheaval — social, political and artistic rebellion. A lot of the foment was centered in Switzerland, where, living all 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 (working on creating the artistic philosophy of Dadaism).
The recollector, Henry Carr, was also there, as a minor official in the British Consulate. He actually met James Joyce, and did perform the role of Algernon in a production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” And they did come to a head-to-head confrontation over a few francs, which culminated in a protracted legal battle. The rest is head-spinning speculation, in Tom Stoppard’s brilliant 1974 script. In the face of these great minds, Carr is the keeper of the status quo, defender of the bourgeoisie against which all the others are rebelling. His memory is faulty, and the truth is ever-elusive, but just hang on for the fun, fabulous, farcical ride.
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 delectably, the timeless lines of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” It would, in fact, be a great idea to first see the North Coast Repertory Theatre production of Wilde’s masterpiece (which is running in repertory with “Travesties”), so you can catch all the deliciously twisted references.
Both productions are flawless. Co-directors Rosina Reynolds and Sean Murray have hit every note with perfect pitch. And the lighting and sound are part of the impeccably orchestrated whole. Murray is marvelous as the bureaucratic Carr, and the rest of the cast is equally expert. Especially dazzling is the vaudevillian musical duet between Jessa Watson’s Gwendolen and Julie Jacobs’ Cecily. Jim Chovick makes a splendid Lenin, and Annie Hinton is superb as his Russian-speaking wife. Jeffrey Jones is aptly outrageous and avant garde as Tzara, James Saba is uproarious as Joyce and Don Loper, playing two butlers in “Earnest,” is an even funnier manservant here. If you’re up to the intellectual challenge, consider seeing both plays in one day. Or savor them separately; but if you love art, history or philosophy, you won’t miss this delectably cerebral delight.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.