"Travesties" by Tom Stoppard presented by Marin Shakespeare Company at Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, San Rafael

“Travesties” by Tom Stoppard

Marin Shakespeare Company
At Forest Meadows Amphitheater, San Rafael CA

Photo of Alexandra Matthew (left) and William Elsman by Morgan Cowin

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

To launch their 21st season, Robert and Leslie Currier, Artistic and Managing Directors with Marin Shakespeare Company, chose the cerebral farce “Travesties” by English/Czech playwright Tom Stoppard. First performed in London in 1974, it went on to win the Tony Award for Best Play in 1976. It’s like a comic, fevered dream, with blazing moments of philosophical insight and humor that border on the profound.

The story’s main plotline - an old man’s erratic memories of his youth - is used as a clever tool to take creative liberties with historical facts, and those memories are played out right before our eyes. The result: we meet three of the most influential personalities of the Twentieth Century and learn how they may – or may not – have known the old man, Henry Carr. An actual figure taken from history, Carr was a minor official with the British consulate in Zurich, Switzerland at the time of his fuzzy reminiscing – 1917, the height of World War I and the inception of the Russian Revolution.

It was here, in 1917 Zurich, that Carr first met Irish author James Joyce, who was just beginning his opus “Ulysses”, and also mounting a production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Joyce asked Carr to play a leading role in “Earnest” and he accepted with gusto. We see the aging Carr’s memory of the time merging with the characters and story line of “Ernest” and at times neither he – nor the audience – can tell where one leaves off and the other begins. Gwendolen and Cecily, two characters from “Ernest”, are reimagined: one as Carr’s sister, the other as his love interest.

Also in Zurich in 1917 was Romanian author and poet Tristan Tzara, best known for being a founder of the anti-establishment performance art movement Dadaism. Tzara managed to combine great personal charm with a persistent criticism of all things capitalist and conventional. Of course, the dawn of the Russian revolution would be incomplete without Vladimir Lenin, who also happened to be in Zurich that very same year, writing scathing manifestos and struggling with the urge to join his comrades in Russia.

With Carr, Joyce, Tzara and Lenin all on the same stage, Stoppard allows us a unique opportunity to observe opposing points of view on art, philosophy, politics and literature without asking us to decide which one is “right” or “wrong”. We have only to enjoy, and be inspired. This is tremendously liberating, and very entertaining.

Stoppard taps unexpected sources for piercing humor and wit. An especially delightful exchange between Gwendolen and Cecily is performed like the venerable Gallagher and Shean vaudeville act. And Groucho Marx’s famous line “I refuse to belong to any club that would have me as a member” is recalled in one scene, where Henry says to Tristan, “I don’t think there’ll be a place for Dada in a communist society” and Tristan replies “That’s what we have against this one. There’s a place for us in it!”

Director Robert Currier’s staging of this challenging piece is brilliant. The play’s opening sequence is particularly striking: a syncopated rhythm of cane tapping, foot stomping, stamping, clicking and clacking is both mesmerizing and energizing. It builds the momentum of the story to come. In scenes where time seems to be moving backwards, Currier uses repetition and a cuckoo clock to show where old Henry’s memory is slipping off the track. Currier’s work with the actors frees them to use their imaginations and creativity. At times they might step into the audience to help themselves to swigs of someone’s wine right from the bottle, or cookies to nibble onstage, as happened on opening night. If one suspects there may be a bit of improvisation here and there, one would be right.

Every member of the cast is superb, though there were the usual opening-night peccadilloes. William Elsman as Henry Carr plays his part like the most skilled of fine musicians, bringing nuance to a shallow, pompous character. His deft transitions, from old to young and back again, are especially praiseworthy, although some of his improvisations were a bit distracting. Darren Bridgett as Tzara is charismatic and appealing. His ability to deliver lines during his acrobatic contortions is nothing short of amazing, but his strong Romanian accent faded to a shadow of its former self after the first few scenes. Lucas McClure as James Joyce had no such accent troubles and is thoroughly convincing as the lofty-minded yet unrefined Irish writer. Stephen Klum has perhaps the most thankless role as the humorless Lenin, but he comes across as appropriately dynamic and forceful.

Alexandra Matthew brings warmth to the straitlaced librarian Cecily, who’s really a smoldering volcano of passion. Cat Thompson’s interpretation of Carr’s sister Gwendolen offers dazzling comedic timing and class. Carr’s taciturn but acerbic manservant Bennett serves as the perfect foil as played by Julian Lopez-Morillas, although he seemed to forget some of his lines in Act I. Sharon Huff gives a strong performance as Lenin’s wife Nadya. Special mention should be made of the four silent white-clad ensemble players who interact with the actors as they move the set pieces, using pantomime to effectively underscore emotional or comic effects.

Set design by Mark Robinson serves the eccentric story well. A centerpiece and in constant view is a large, surreal cuckoo-clock that announces not only the passage of time, but also events. Moveable staircases, bookcases and a desk on wheels provide different levels of storytelling and movement. Costumes by Jocelyn Leiser Herndon are perfect for the period. Unfortunately, there was misdirected and insufficient lighting in both the first and second acts, and really annoying reverb in the first act, that hopefully should be rectified.

Marin Shakespeare Company’s “Travesties” at Forest Meadows is witty, complex and dynamic, a visual and intellectual feast. The figurative fireworks all too often soar right over the audience’s heads, but no matter – it’s pure, playful, wicked genius.

When: Performances July 9 to August 15, 2010
8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays; 4 p.m. & 5 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $20 to $35
Location: Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University of California
1475 Grand Avenue, San Rafael CA
Phone: 415-499-4488
Website: www.marinshakespeare.org