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Oakland Tribune, December 12, 2004


Shotgun whips up Wilde night in Stoppard's tricky 'Travesties'


HOW fitting that Berkeley's Shotgun Players, now ensconced in a gorgeous theater of their very own, embark on a quest to discover (and dismantle) the meaning of art.

For 13 years this enterprising troupe has played some of the best and most of the worst stages in the East Bay. Now, with the Ashby Stage to call home, Shotgun stirs up some brainy chaos in "Travesties," Tom Stoppard's 1971 slice of serious whimsy.

It's as if, after being strolling players for so long, Shotgun can finally settle down and let loose.

In a space that was a church before it housed, for a few seasons, the Transparent Theater, Shotgun enlivens Stoppard in ways the American Conservatory Theater couldn't in its recent production of his "The Real Thing.

Sabrina Klein brings a wise zaniness to her direction of "Travesties," a mostly plotless romp through the memories of a befuddled Brit.

The play is primarily about the infallibility of memory, but along the way, the endlessly clever Stoppard manages to work in pithy discussions of the Dada arts movement, the brilliance of Oscar Wilde, the penny pinching of James Joyce and the revolutionary mind of Vladimir Lenin.

As farces go, this one is decidedly intellectual, but that's where Klein's steady hand and broad vision, along with the considerable energy of the cast, come into play.

There's a playful tone to this production that helps keep it afloat when Stoppard delves deep into his prodigious store of verbiage.

Klein has her actors in near-constant movement around Alf Pollard's set, which is itself a sort of Dadaist sculpture/collage of antiques, clothes, symbols, nooks and crannies.

All the motion helps buoy the energy in this nearly three-hour show (which, like all Shotgun shows is free), but it's the robust performances by the well-cast actors that claim much of the evening's victory.

John Mercer is Henry Carr, our host for the evening and a man who fondly recalls spending much of World War I in Zurich after a medical release from the British Armed Forces.

In Zurich, Henry rubbed shoulders with Lenin (Richard Louis James looking every inch the proletariat rebel) and his loyal wife (Davina Cohen), Dada artist Tristan Tzara (Kevin Clarke) and Irish novelist James Joyce (Kevin Kelleher), who was working on a little novel called "Ulysses."

As Henry recalls the events and people of 1917, his memories are entirely colored by the fact that he starred in a local production of Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." More often than not, Henry's encounters with Lenin, Joyce and Tzara turn into scenes from "Earnest," with tremendous assists from Rica Anderson and Gwen Larsen fulfilling Wilde's Cecily and Gwendolyn roles. There's even a wise butler named Bennett (David Valdez), who serves up more international news than he does cucumber sandwiches and muffins.

This is ambitious, challenging theater, and Shotgun pulls it off with great success. Stoppard has his characters debate whether art changes society or society changes art. There's no real answer, but in this "Travesties," art is as funny, engaging and rewarding as you want it to be.

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