Travesties

by Tom Stoppard. I saw a production of this on Sunday by the Shotgun Players, and it truly made the play come alive. Reading the script of Travesties can drive one a bit crazy. Much of the play’s structure, which stems from its central questions of memory and the revision of history, has to be teased out in the reading but is crystal clear on stage. Sabrina Klein, the director, used a very light touch, which was both this production’s success and downfall.

The play is the tangled-up reminiscence of Henry Carr, a diplomat posted in Zurich in 1918. At that time, James Joyce, Tristan Tzara (the Dadaist) and Lenin were all in Zurich. The real Carr was approached by Joyce to play the part of Algernon in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, which Carr accepted. All the actors were expected to sell a certain number of tickets, and Carr didn’t meet his quota, so Joyce sued him for the value of the unsold tickets. Carr filed a counter suit for for twelve times the amount to cover the cost of a pair of pants he had tailored for his costume. Joyce won and Carr lost, in what Carr believes is a travesty of justice.

Fast forward to the “present” (presumably 1974, when the play premiered), and Carr, who has led a very undistinguished life, is trying, in his semi-senility, to title his memoirs. Because he was there at a critical time when Dadaism was flourishing, Joyce was writing Ulysses, and Lenin was trying to get back to Russia to join the revolution, Carr seeks to place himself in history so that all these famous figures revolved around his actions. In the telling, he muddles up the truth with his fantasies and with the script Earnest. His travesty of justice is wrapped in with a travesty of Earnest.

Klein’s approach to Carr’s many revisions is mechanical choerography that suggests rewinding a videotape, although much less literal. The actor playing Carr negotiates the pages-long stop-and-go narrative monologues well, albeit too evenly. Carr is an affable fellow, eager to claim his stake in history, the sort of funny old man who you sit next to in the plane. When he tells you his life story, you just smile and nod. Carr’s claim at the end is that “if you can’t be revolutionary, you might as well be an artist,” and vice-versa. But Carr himself is neither artist nor revolutionary, and there is something a little crass in trying to throw himself into their company. What this production gives Carr is gentle understanding without critique. The bite is really what’s missing here.

However, the play is very funny, although the segments from Earnest could have been played up more. When reading it’s clear what lines are lifted from the play, especially if you know it well, but in performance some things have to be made a little clearer. This may be my bias, though. Joyce’s entrance with Bracknell’s line “arise sir, from that semi-recumbent position,” was hurried and lacked the stentorian oomph that the best Bracknell’s have (c.f. Dame Edith Evans). Lenin’s Bracknell reference was better — “to lose one revolution may be regarded as misfortune. To lose two seems like carelessness!”

The design was perfectly in tune with the production. The set, by Alf Pollard, is wonderfully cluttered with all manner of objects and furniture, including a toilet and several soapboxes on which Tzara and Lenin can rant. Since Carr’s obsession is with pants, the costumes feature prominently, and the designs of Christine Crook (with whom I acted in Marat/Sade) were spot on. Tzara’s suit coat had breast pockets with handkerchiefs on the arms, and his first crazy-man costume was hilarious. Joyce’s mismatching suits, a source of consternation for Carr, were excellent.

All in all, definitely a production worth seeing. Stoppard is very often done, but not often done well, and this production reminds you why he’s a great writer.

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