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East Bay Express, December 15, 2004


Tom Stoppard in Earnest
Shotgun's Travesties is brainy but fun.


Words drip from hats; spinning toilets disgorge wigs, cucumbers, and books; and a old man picks and chooses among his memories of Zurich during World War I, when so many people were pretending to be spies there was barely room for all the real ones. This is the frenetic, clever world of Tom Stoppard's delightful Travesties, now swimming against the Christmas tide at the Shotgun Players' new Ashby Stage digs.

It's a little hard to explain what Travesties is, and the Shotgunners don't really try, preferring instead to ride the manic energy of Stoppard's mix of Dada, literary theory, and the history of the Russian revolution. Stoppard takes three men who were in Zurich at the same time -- Dadaist Tristan Tzara, author James Joyce, and revolutionary Vladimir Lenin -- and links them together through the dodgy memory of a fourth expatriate, the British consular agent Henry Carr.

Oh, and then Stoppard -- well known for turning Hamlet inside out to create Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead -- presses the Travesties mix into a mold shaped roughly like Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Joyce becomes a rough approximation of Lady Bracknell, Carr doubles as Algernon, and Tzara does time as Jack. Which is stunningly hilarious if you know Earnest, and probably completely mystifying if you don't. While it might also help to read Joyce's Ulysses and brush up on your Das Kapital before a sexy librarian opens the first act by quoting it, knowing Wilde's sly comedy of manners and class will give you the most bang for the buck here. A little Gilbert and Sullivan wouldn't hurt either: besides Carr's embrace of the duo's canon, there is a G&S flavor to some of the moments, especially the first time Carr meets Joyce and the tussle between Gwendolen and Cecily -- characters from Earnest who also reappear here.

In short, Travesties is pretty meta to begin with, and gets even more so if you saw last year's Death of Meyerhold, another December show covering Russian history and featuring many of the same actors. It's particularly funny if you catch that this year's Lenin is reviling last year's Lunacharsky, and they're played by the same man, the proudly indignant Richard Louis James, virtually unrecognizable in full beard and smallish dark eyebrows. Last year's Shostakovich, Kevin Clarke, gets to be just as agile and twice as tough as the tantrum-prone Tzara, who exclaims that "It's too late for geniuses. Now we need vandals," and describes his working method thus: "I was quietly improving a Shakespeare sonnet with a pair of scissors."

But it's not all great insults and librarians in sequin-trimmed underthings. Stoppard likes to use humor to explore deeper questions, and spends much of Travesties pondering war, art, self-representation, and the intersections between them. "War is capitalism with the gloves off," Tzara yells at Carr, who responds by noting that wars are fought so that artists can work unmolested. Meanwhile, Lenin dictates a letter to his wife that a comrade must find two Swedes that resemble the Lenins so they can get back to Russia and steer the revolution. "And because we do not speak Swedish," he explains, "they must be deaf mutes." So it's funny, but with an edge.

One of the exciting things about Shotgun being in its own space is watching what the company can do visually when it doesn't have to pull everything down at the end of each performance. It's clearly relishing the possibilities, as marked by a set cluttered with old luggage, racks of clothes, and the aforementioned turning toilet. Director Sabrina Klein's actors spin through Alf Pollard's set like clockwork toys to Greg Scharpen's antic, squished sound design. People move in reverse, climb up on unstable things, slide down railings, and generally use the whole space with the kind of glee you usually see in a cat moving into a new house.

They're also pretty gleeful actors: in addition to James and Clarke, the cast boasts the wide-eyed Rica Anderson as a saucy shirtwaisted Cecily, who works in the Zurich public library and assists Lenin in his research; Gwen Larsen as her nemesis-turned-sister Gwendolen, who assists Joyce; and Kevin Kelleher as a spot-on Joyce. Joyce and Tzara don't get on at all well: Kelleher delivers a line about Tzara's fits of rage -- "You are an overexcited little man with a NEED for self-expression beyond the scope of your gifts" -- with a calmness that beautifully highlights Tzara's basic instability.

Usually playing any sort of servant is a thankless task good for a few witty lines if anything. But not in this play. Henry Carr's butler Bennett is a lot smarter than the man he works for, and David Valdez is elegant and precise in the role, investing lines like "masters and servants as it were, SIR" with barely-contained menace as he explains socialism to his boss. There's a bit between Bennett and the reminiscing Carr that uses repetition to impart a lot of information about the growing unrest in Russia and to slowly build the idea that Carr hasn't quite got a grasp. It's cleverly done, and gets steadily funnier.

And then there's Carr, affably played by John Mercer, who sees the world in black and white -- or more accurately, in pinstripes and herringbone tweed. Stoppard based his Carr, the most travestied of the "real" characters, on the real Carr, who took the real James Joyce to court over the matter of some trousers. The real Joyce had put up a Zurich production of Earnest (spookily, Stoppard didn't know this when he first had the idea to write Travesties as a skewed remake of the Wilde play) and cast the real Carr as Algernon; Carr spent quite a bit of money getting his own costume made, and then sued Joyce for his haberdashery.

Stoppard thought that was a great starting place for a character, and built his Carr as a clotheshorse who describes his time in the trenches (the real Carr was "invalided" out of the war with a leg injury) in terms of what he was wearing. Carr claims that he "was not born under a rhyming planet," yet poetically speaks of Switzerland as "the still center of the wheel of war" and "the mystical Swissticality of it." Mercer's character has got the play's longest monologue, a rambly business in which Carr muses on his memoirs ("Joyce As I Knew Him; Lenin: A Sketch"). He does it bemusedly, and director Klein helps out by having the characters Carr is talking about pop out and listen to what he's saying with varying degrees of pleasure and consternation.

In fact, there are many little touches, combinations of text and blocking, that add to the overall hectic, lively effect -- such as Tzara doggedly cutting up a sonnet at the very beginning of the play and putting the pieces in his hat as the audience chatters away, unaware that the play is starting. Stoppard has been accused of being "all head and no heart," and this is a very cerebral work, but in Klein's sure hands it's also a great deal of fun that would reward repeated viewing.

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