4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Prism says memory is “the diary we all carry about with us.” To which precocious Cecily counters, “but it usually chronicles the things that have never happened and couldn’t possibly have happened.”
Although Tom Stoppard had many things in mind when he wrote Travesties (1974), in one sense it’s a theatrical demonstration of Cecily’s reply.
Creaky old Henry Carr lolls in a chair and recalls the time, way back in his youth, he performed in The Importance of Being Earnest. His memory is as bad as his failing eyesight.
Even when he can read his mental “diary,” he has “time slips”: recollections jump back to their starting point. In today’s parlance, they have Groundhog Day variations.
The play begins in the Tower of Babel. Three men are writing in the Zurich Public Library. Then they speak strange words and phrases. Nothing makes sense: the bald man talks Russian; the man with mismatched coat and pants chortles “Hoopsa, boyaboy”; the third, after having snipped a piece of paper into small bits, reads words at random, including “Eel at enormous appletzara.”
Their names, however, are familiar: James Joyce, age 36, writing Ulysses; Tristan Tzara, age 20, the papa of the Dada movement; and V.I. Lenin, 47, soon to lead the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
It’s 1917. Or is it 1916? ’18? Hard to say, since Henry’s eroded mind shuffles them. During World War I, he was a minor figure in the English consulate’s Switzerland office. He served under a man named Bennett. In Carr’s memory, however, he was the British consul — and Bennett is now his valet.
The actual Henry Carr played Algernon in a production of Earnest. James Joyce backed the troupe and underpaid the performers. Carr objected, and they went to court. The legal wrangle happened. But everything else in Travesties lives up to Stoppard’s title.
Carr recalls Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the minor figures in Shakespeare’s Hamlet privy to a fraction of the story. Carr was in Zurich when the greats were there, only they weren’t “great” at the time: Ulysses wasn’t published until 1922; Lenin was a longshot, at best, to lead a revolution in St. Petersburg.
In effect, Carr jumbles his memories the way Tzara slices up paper with pinking shears.
In a sense, Travesties is Stoppard’s Ulysses. Both unfold with various literary styles. But, like the early works of Sam Shepard, Travesties is first and foremost the playwright’s performance, a deliberate “watch me” tour de force that can drive you nuts.
Even Stoppard admitted it. Though he feels that, “Speech to speech...it’s as good as I can ever get,” for the play’s London revival in 1993 (directed by Adrian Noble), Stoppard told the cast, “I think I may have been showing off here, swanking with the research.” He made revisions then, and several times since.
Cygnet Theatre has given Travesties the best possible context. It runs in repertory with Importance of Being Earnest. This is so helpful because Stoppard assumes the audience knows Wilde’s comedy, by heart, and embedded it into his play: Carr is Algernon; Tzara, Jack; Joyce could be Lady Bracknell; Gwendolen and Cecily are quite similar; and many quotations come directly from Earnest.
Or could have, as when Carr observes, “A social revolution? Unaccompanied women smoking at the opera, that sort of thing?”
Running the plays back-to-back allows Cygnet to cast the same actors, often in the same costumes, and provides a handy guide into the labyrinths of Travesties. (If possible, see the excellent production of Earnest first.)
Sean Murray directed both plays, which is no mean feat. And a hallmark of each is their sweeping theatricality. Even when old Carr’s brain goes splooey, the stage makes visual sense. Fractured movements, reverse slo-mo, grand entrances, orderly ensemble blockings, sprockets of chaos — all support the language, even when it trundles into inanity.
Travesties demands flashy performances. Except for a solemn Lenin in Act Two, the characters are a gaggle of eccentrics upstaging each other and scuffling for focus. Except for a tendency to rush the lines on opening night (probably corrected by now), the actors obviously enjoy skewering the people they play in repertory — even, in some cases, how they play Wilde’s characters.
Amid the virtuosity and hijinks, Stoppard offers a debate about the function and value of art: “Whether the words ‘revolutionary’ and ‘artist’ are capable of being synonymous, or whether they are mutually exclusive, or something in between.”
Joyce (Patrick McBride, a walking limerick) argues the traditional view: art is its own justification; leave it alone. Tzara (funny, gonzo Brian Mackey) wants to destroy all creative forms and make living an art in itself; Lenin (Manny Fernandes, who looks a lot like V.I.) says art only has a social function, aesthetics be damned. Carr (Jordan Miller, who may have more lines than Hamlet — not the man, the play!) jumps in, too. He takes this or that side, often bends them through his fractured perspective. Which makes sense, since Stoppard originally wanted to name the play after one of Wilde’s characters: Prism.
Travesties, by Tom Stoppard
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Directed by Sean Murray, cast: Maggie Carney, Manny Fernandes, David Cochran Heath, Brian Mackey, Patrick McBride, Jordan Miller, Jacque Wilke, Rachael VanWormer; scenic design, Sean Fanning; costumes, Shirley Pierson; lighting, Chris Rynne; sound, Kevin Anthenill
Playing through October 27; runs in repertory with The Importance of Being Earnest. For days and times of each: 619-337-1525 or firstname.lastname@example.org