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Difficult to Penetrate McCarter Production of Tom Stoppard's Travesties

Also see Bob's review of Twelve Angry Men and Wayman Wong's interview with Christopher Charles Wood of Damn Yankees

Even under ideal conditions, Tom Stoppard's fast-paced, verbally and intellectually playful 1974 vaudevillian lark Travesties requires most viewers to work almost as hard as its thespian interpreters to follow its fractured verbal high jinks. However, when a production makes it nigh on to impossible for a capable and cooperative audience to succeed in its efforts, the theatrical funhouse which Stoppard has constructed ceases to provide much in the way of fun. Even the best efforts of a lively, adept cast and light-fingered director are of little avail to overcome the foggy abyss which separates most of the McCarter Matthews Theatre audience from the wit and whimsy of Tom Stoppard.

Sitting in his Zurich drawing room in 1974, Henry Carr remembers back to his days as a minor British consular official, sharing with us his activities in Zurich in 1917. The World War I settings are the Zurich Public Library and the same drawing room from which Carr is relating his clearly clouded memories. Carr boastfully tells us of his interactions with the Romanian (later French) poet-playwright-journalist Dadaist pioneer Tristan Tzara; modernist Irish novelist James Joyce; and Russian political and social revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. Also on the scene are Gwendolyn, Carr's younger sister, who assists Joyce in translating "Ulysses" and is courted by Tzara; Cecily, who is a librarian and is courted by Carr; and Nadya, Lenin's wife. Finally, there is Bennett, Carr's acerbic manservant.

Somehow, the plot of, as well as lines from, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is worked into the middle of all this business, with Travesties' Cecily and Gwendolyn sitting in for Wilde's, and Carr and Tzara for Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff.

Stoppard has stated that his inspiration for Travesties was his discovery that, although they never met Tzara, Joyce and Lenin were all living in Switzerland in 1917. There was also a real British consulate official name of Henry Carr, who played Moncrieff in an English Players production of Earnest produced by Joyce, and ended up being sued by Joyce. Although the latter events are included in the play, it is a work of fiction, parody, farce, comedy, sketches, whimsy, musical tidbits, vaudeville. It is arbitrary, nonsensical and frequent shifts in style.

The prologue, which is played atop and on the sides of the box-like stage-center set for Carr's drawing room, is set in a dark public library, and is spoken in a mixture of Russian, English, French, German, nonsense resembling English and Lord knows what else. It begins with Lenin and Joyce writing and Joyce dictating to Gwen. Tzara, who has been writing, cuts up his papers with scissors and puts them in his hat, and then reconstructs them in some other order. From the eighth out of about 23 rows on the aisle (J-1), because of the low volume and a slight echo, when the characters speak, it was too difficult to pick up on the words, so that, rather than enjoy the word and sound play of the dialogue, I spent the scene worrying about what I was supposed to understand, but could not quite make out rather than possibly enjoying the humor of what Tzara has written:

Eel ate enormous appletzara
key dairy chef's hat he'll learn comparah!
Ill raced alas whispers kill later nut east,
noon avuncular ill day Clara!

Trying hard to understand that which was not intended to be understandable, I missed the important moment when Gwen puts down the folder that she received from Joyce, and Cecily puts down the identical looking folder which she received from Lenin, and then each picks up and leaves with the wrong folder. I did follow when Nadya, Lenin's wife, came in to inform Lenin that the Tsar had been overthrown. Cecily keeps "shushing" everyone, leading to a funny little poem from Joyce which I could not clearly discern amid the hubbub. Joyce closes the scene singing, "If You Ever Go Across the Sea to Ireland," causing me to be further misdirected as the second scene begins.

Next comes the first scene which is set in Carr's drawing room in 1974. The lighting is extremely low. Director Sam Buntrock will not light this set fully until after the end of the scene when the action reverts to 1917. While this is a readily understandable artistic decision, in tandem with the small box shaped drawing room set with the stage space above it and at its sides in darkness, the scene appears more distant from the viewer than it otherwise might. James Urbaniak as Carr now reads a 1600-word monologue with a simulated tired and strained old man's voice at breakneck speed. It was essentially indecipherable from my pew. Less than halfway through this monologue, just a few minutes into the performance, I become aware of increasingly heavy snoring from seat K-1. It was such an appropriate response to the circumstances that I found myself richly amused by the gentlemen's (I could not help myself from turning around to see who was snoring) rapid critical acuity.

With the very fast paced dialogue, the extreme archness of the applied accents, and the often tricky and/or quick witted writing and changes in style, not to mention the box like drawing room set, following the details of Stoppard's writing was a chore rather than a treat.

I've spoken with a colleague who at this point in the performance felt even more shut out from Travesties than I. Furthermore, there was little laughter, a clue to which someone should have paid attention.

Now here's the kicker. Although it was by now too late for me to become fully engaged, the second act of Travesties played very differently from fourth row center of the orchestra (D-110). Suddenly, the liveliness of the performance and the clarity and humorous intonations of the line readings were now apparent. There could be no question, but that director Sam Buntrock and his strong cast had carefully considered the text and were interpreting it with style and attention to its shifting modes. The sound was still not all that it should be, and I would have better enjoyed Cecily and Gwendolyn's parody of the famous signature song of the vaudeville act of "(Mr.) Gallagher and (Mr.) Shean" if I could have more clearly and easily heard the lyrics.

James Urbaniak is particularly lively and inventive as Carr. Everett Quinton as his manservant Bennett has a deft comic touch. Most effective is Stoppard's portrait of Lenin. Coiffed and bearded to bear a striking resemble to the Soviet dictator, Demosthenes Chrysan brings to the role a mock seriousness that highlights the dangers of an all powerful government. Lusia Strus makes a good match for Chrysan as Lenin's Nadya.

Christian Coulson is a dashing and roguish Tristan Tzara. The joke here may be the chasm between Stoppard's Tzara and the grim Dadaist that Tzara was. Susannah Flood (Gwendolyn) and Sara Topham (Cecily) bring a light, very winning touch to their Earnest style roles.

Travesties is not the most accessible of Stoppard's light, vaudevillian plays (Hapgood and Jumpers are those). Thus, it is not often produced. If you want to take advantage of this opportunity to see Travesties by the brilliant Stoppard, you should by all means do so. Just make it a point to obtain a seat as close to the stage as you are able.

Travesties continues performances (Evenings.: Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday, Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday 3 pm/ Sun. 2 pm) through April 1, 2011 at at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online:

Travesties by Tom Stoppard; directed by Sam Buntrock

Henry Carr………………James Urbaniak
Tristan Tzara………….Christian Coulson
James Joyce……………...Fred Arsenault
Lenin……………...Demosthenes Chrysan
Bennett……………………Everett Quinton
Gwendolyn……………….Susannah Flood
Cecily…………………………Sara Topham
Nadya……………………………Lusia Strus

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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