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.

if you use wikipedia

You should read this article by Larry Sanger, one of the founders of Wikipedia who has since left the project. He calls for greater respect for experts and less tolerance towards trolls:

Nevertheless, everyone familiar with Wikipedia can now see the power of the basic Wikipedia idea and the crying need to get more experts on board and a publicly credible review process in place (so that there is a subset of “approved” articles–not a heavy-handed, complicated process, of course). The only way Wikipedia can achieve these things is to jettison its anti-elitism and to moderate its openness to trolls and fools; but it will almost certainly not do these things.

This is one of the things that bugs me about Wikipedia as well, and why I don’t use it for anything that really care a lot about getting right. Some of the articles are slipshod and others are misleading. If I know nothing about a topic (statistical physics, for example), I’m not going to look on Wikipedia to find out. However, if I wanted to know around when Abelard lived, I could look it up there and be reasonably sure it’s correct, or at least correct enough for my purposes.

film wishlist

Movies I wanted or want to see, but probably will have watch on video because I have no time:

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Hotel Rwanda
Moolaade
Vera Drake
The Saddest Music In The World
Dogville
Garden State
Closer
Zaitoichi
Maria Full of Grace
House of Flying Daggers
Hero
The Five Obstructions
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Bad Education

Many others as well, I’m sure. But I did see Sideways, and I thought it was beautiful. There’s some beautiful acting in there, and well-handled monologues, especially when Miles and Maya are talking on the porch.

chilly

The heat is off in my building to save money during break, which makes it a little difficult to type and work. I’m reminded by my piano teacher‘s story of buying fingerless gloves to practice in unheated practice rooms. Berkeley’s attitude towards cutting costs and saving money remind me of a scaled-up version of household economizing. While it’s effective keeping expenses down at home, I’m surprised that cutting corners like this saves as much on the institutional level.

In other news, apparently we use loud mixtapes of Lil’ Kim, RATM, and Eminem to shake up prisoners at Guantanamo before interrogating them. I’m speechless. Of course, there’s other more serious stuff in the article too, which is more disturbing.