An Intelligent, Audacious and Entertaining Production of Tom Stoppard's Travesties
Stoppard's comedy is a thinking man's play and you need your wits about you to appreciate the amazing wordplay in this two hour and forty minute parody. Tom Stoppard is a skilled craftsman, handling with great adroitness and precision plots of extreme originality and complexity. He can rightly be called the Shakespeare of the 20th century.
Travesties is an invigorating experience with its brilliant and replete limericks, puns, word play, oppositions and paradoxes. Stoppard uses artistic debate among all of the characters, and there is even song and dance cleverly inserted during changing of the scenes. There is Wildean lampoon from the playwright in the second act.
I saw one of the first performances of this work at the Aldwych Theatre during the summer of 1974 produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with some of Britain's greatest actors, including John Wood, John Hurt, Tom Bell and Maria Aitken. American Conservatory Theatre did a brilliant production of this prolific playwright's drama in 1977.
Travesties is about a fictional meeting of three important revolutionary figures in Zurich in 1917. There is the communist leader Lenin (Geoff Hoyle), the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara (Gregory Wallace) and the Irish author James Joyce (Anthony Fusco). A senile old Henry Carr (Geordie Johnson) comes onto the stage in a wheelchair at the beginning to give a long soliloquy about the three men to give the audience some background. Suddenly, old Henry becomes young and vibrant Henry Carr, a British consul in Zurich, and the audience is treated to the political and philosophical views of these three men.
Witty complications spring from misinterpretations, mistaken identities and plot twists that the playwright borrows from Oscar Wilde's masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest. The playwright even borrows Cicely (Allison Jean White) and Gwendolyn (Rene Augesen) from Earnest to assist Lenin and Joyce in their different literary attempts that occur in the Zurich library in the second act. These two vivacious actresses do a bit from the famous tea scene in the second act of Earnest to a Smith and Dale vaudeville routine that is absolutely marvelous.
Carey Perloff, artistic director of A.C.T., makes this important piece of work a madcap comedy with zingers coming fast and furious, meshing together with fast-paced dialogue. There is imaginative staging in all of the scenes and the performances of the actors are first class. The entire cast couldn't be better.
Geordie Johnson (nine seasons with Stratford Festival of Canada) is phenomenal as the older Henry Carr with his erratic memory, before going immediately into the younger version of the character. As he played the senile elder man, I kept thinking of the Man in Chair in the musical Drowsy Chaperone; Geordie uses the same cadence of speech, but his character is more on the intellectual track.
Gregory Wallace (ACT core member) revels in his role as Tristan Tzara. He infuses the role with a luminous Dadaism that fluently evokes a larger than life diva from the opera stage. This is the role of a lifetime, and Gregory makes the most of the character. Anthony Fusco (The Rivals, The Voysey Inheritance, The Gamester at ACT) plays James Joyce as a sardonic character. His voice has a lyrical Irish brogue when spouting limericks and lampooning Ulysses in a debate with Tzara.
Geoff Hoyle (New York's Brundibar) plays two roles: Bennett the Butler and Lenin. He plays the role of the butler as a stoic character with an upper class voice. His Lenin is excellent; he morphs into the role to look and act like the Russian revolutionary leader.
Rene Augesen as Gwendolyn and Allison Jean White as Cecily are wonderfully delicious as the prim and proper characters of Wilde's play. Allison Jean White also shines as the librarian at the Zurich library. Rene Augesen gives a beautiful reading of a Shakespearean sonnet in the first act. Joan Mankin is properly stern as Nadya, the wife of Lenin.
Douglas W. Schmidt has designed some amazing sets with scenery of empty picture frames flying at odd angles. The library set looks like something out of a Dada painting. The set in the second act, when Lenin is giving his manifesto, is a perfect propaganda poster with striking reds from the early Soviet period. Costumes by Deborah Dryden are authentic for the period. Lighting by Robert Wetzel is spectacular.
Geordie Johnson as the elder Henry Carr sums it up perfectly at the end of the comedy. "I learned three things in Zurich during the war. I wrote them down. Firstly, you're either a revolutionary or you're not, and if you're not you might as well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can't be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary. I forget the third thing."
Tom Stoppard's Travesties runs through October 15th at the American Conservatory Theatre (formerly the Geary). Tickets are available at 415-749-2228 and online at www.act-sf.org
Their next production is Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes opening on October 27th and running through November 26th.