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|A CurtainUp Review
Travesties by Elyse Sommer
In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Tom Stoppard borrowed two minor characters from Hamlet to play the major roles in his own ironic take on what's center stage and what isn't. In Travesties his pivotal character is based on a rather insignificant real person who ends up as a minor character in a major novel, James Joyce's Ulysses.
This being a Stoppard play, it should come as no surprise, that the playwright also casts Joyce in his play -- along with Lenin and the DaDa artist Tristan Tzara. The Perkasie Theatre Company's promotional postcard for its three-week revival of the play, features pictures of all these famous figures from the past as well as Oscar Wilde. And Wilde does indeed play a part, not in person, but to merge Stoppardian and Wildean wit by introducing a spoof on The Importance of Being Earnest.
If I seem to be telling you about who's who and not what's what in the conventional context of linear plot, it's because, this like most of his plays defies neat plot summaries. The style is absurdist farce. The chief pleasures derive from the open sesame into Stoppard's encyclopedic interests and the fun of keeping up with his wordplay.
For those of you, who like Rosencrantz are apt to persist in asking "what's it about?" here's a brief rundown on some of the events that propel Travesties from the present (the play was first produced in 1974) to 1917 and back: Henry Carr, (Neal Arluck) is our comically whacky tour guide through his hazy memories as minor official of the British Consulate in "the miraculously, neutrality of it" Zürich, Switzerland during World War I. As it happens Lenin (Duncan Hazard), Joyce (David Aston-Reese) and Tzara (Kurt Effman) are in Zürich at the same time.
Stoppard introduces us to Carr and this trinity of historical eccentrics in the local library, presided over by Cecily (Carrie Brewer), a Lenin disciple with whom the devoteé of the upper class Carr falls in love. Carr's sister Gwendolen (Amanda Jones) assists Joyce on the manuscript he is working on at the same time that he manages the local theater where he asks Carr to play Algernon in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. This leads to a lawsuit over the miserly small fee grudgingly paid in what Carr deemed to be an insulting manner. Joyce actually did manage the local theater, and Carr did play the part and the two men did become embroiled in a legal scuffle.
To bring the simmering imbroglio to a boil, the names of Carr's sister and the librarian turn out to be more than coincidental as Carr's memoir turns into The Importance of Being Earnest à la Tom Stoppard. To add to the intermingling of real life and theater, the writings of Lenin, who's on his way back to St. Petersburg and his date with destiny, and Joyce's Ulysses also become mixed up. Through it all, Carr, like Rosencrantz, remains daffily unaware of the significance of these historical figures who have happened into his own insignificant life.
Within the constraints of the small theater and the company's budget, director Steven Keim has mounted a production without scenic frills. Except for a few props and Sara O'Donnell's delightful costumes, he relies on his actors and to bring out the playwright's humor and wit.
Neal Arluck taps into Carr's daffyness, both as a befuddled, wheel chair bound narrator and as a very proper and superior young man, though some of his monologues in the first act occasionally lose the momentum needed to keep audiences on their toes. Kurt Efftmann deftly maneuvers Tristam Tzara's monocle and Dadaist pronouncements. Duncan Hazard in an inspired bit of double casting doesn't miss a beat as he navigates between Lenin and Bennett, the Carr butler who strikes his boss as "showing alarming signs of irony" which he has always found to be the first sign of "an awakening social consciousness among the lower orders." David Aston-Reese's James Joyce is the weakest of the play's historic trio. Among the women, Carrie Brewer shows superb timing as the self-righteous librarian and Amanda Jones is saucy as she should be as Cecily. The act two scene where the two women do a Stoppard variation of a Mr. Shane and Mr. Gallagher routine is by itself worth the more than modest price of admission.
The revisions said to have been made to the original in 1993 to accommodate the changing world situation are, according to the playwright himself, largely a matter of some cutting (the original version ran 3 hours), scene shifting and line additions. Actually, the turning tide of events seemed anticipated in the then and now text: "To lose one revolution is unfortunate. To lose two would look like carelessness!"
Like other Stoppard plays, Travesties provides its own little dictionary of notable quotes. Some are more memorable than others, some may be sheer nonsense, but as one character puts it: "It may be nonsense, but at least it's clever nonsense."
Links to other Stoppard plays reviewed at CurtainUp
On the Razzle
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
The Invention of Love (London)
On the Razzle