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The Rubicon (Website) - December 29, 2004


Who's Your Dada?

- by Robert Silvey


Early in his career, 1972, Stoppard was interviewed by Mel Gussow in the New York Times, and he explained why he plays such games:

I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself. I'm the kind of person who embarks on an endless leapfrog down the great moral issues. I put a position, rebut it, refute it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation. Forever. Endlessly.

Stoppard wrote Travesties in 1974, and it was a great hit in the West End. It is a wild romp in which three unlikely revolutionaries§Lenin, James Joyce, and the dadaist Tristan Tzara§bounce off each other in 1918 Switzerland. Based loosely on the historical fact that all three were actually in Zurich around the same time, it is held together by another (though minor) historical figure, British consul Henry Carr, who acts as interlocutor and dramatic glue. The play is one of Stoppard's dizziest concoctions, full of deep ideas signifying nothing, or perhaps (dada?) everything. Your choice.

The Shotgun Players have a rollicking time of it in their intense, amusing, athletic production at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. And they don't make the choice for you. It's up to you to discern meaning§or to decide that the metameaning is meaninglessness. Sabrina Klein directs the ideational circus with the requisite clarity and light touch, assisted by the brilliant overstuffed-attic set of Alf Pollard and Tiffany Le Rue's Christine Crook's period costumes with just the right pointed exaggerations.

The cast, choreographed by Kimberly Dooley, whirls about the stage on their individual hobby horses, declaiming in appropriate accents the manifestos of each narrow perspective. They are something like the Seinfeld crew, talking past each other from their solipsistic certainties. Kevin Clarke as Tzara is especially untethered, as though his dadaism were a denial of physical reality as well as philosophical certainty. Kevin Kelleher is a redoubtable Joyce, alternately bombastical and poetical; and Richard Louis James as Lenin displays the fire and focus that will ignite the political flames in Russia.

The still center of the turning world, among these inspired revolutionaries§and therefore the most difficult role§is the uninspired Carr, played by John Mercer with stolid rectitude and care. Carr has both feet on the ground, and he is simultaneously ridiculous and essential; Mercer gives him three dimensions and a heart, and he knits together the cutting-edge art, the Wildean wordplay, and the political thought. Speaking of his butler, Carr sums it up in his inadvertent way: "Bennett seems to be showing alarming signs of irony. I have always found that irony among the lower orders is the first sign of an awakening social consciousness."

The Shotgun Players started 12 years ago in the basement of LaVal's pizzeria§and under the artistic direction of Patrick Dooley they have come a long way, from Shakespeare in the basement to Brecht and Aeschylus outdoors in Hinkle Park to Mark Jackson's sprawling The Death of Meyerhold at the Julia Morgan Theatre a year ago. Now in their own space, across from the Ashby BART station in South Berkeley, they continue to challenge themselves and their audience. The 2005 season includes In the Name of Justice by Camus, Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, and Caryl Churchill's Owners. The plays may be challenging, but the sliding-scale ticket prices are not§in fact, the first week of each production is free, with a pass-the-hat donation.

Travesties runs Thursdays through Sundays through January 16. Don't miss it. It's a well-made evening in the theatre, and a playful run in the park for a thoughtful homo ludens.

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