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SF Bay Guardian, December 15, 2004


Who's your Dada?
Modern art and revolution vie with the status quo in the Shotgun Players' Travesties.

By Robert Avila


IN 1918, all around the placid little land of neutral Switzerland, war raged as never before. Industrial societies, to everyone's surprise, had proved stupendously effective murderers of human beings. And so the Great War was renamed, and a numeral placed after it to indicate an early version of a killer new program. The era was known as the Modern and was assumed by enlightened Western minds to represent the pinnacle of Progress. Meanwhile, in Zurich, three men were quietly working in very different ways to overthrow the old order.

Henry Carr's was one of those enlightened Western minds satisfied with the way things were at bottom. Carr was a petty official of the British government then attached to the consul general's office in Zurich. But until playwright Tom Stoppard appropriated him, Carr survived only as a footnote in the literary biography of James Joyce. Joyce, who was in Zurich in 1918 too, convinced Carr to play the part of Algernon in a local production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, to be staged by the English Players, which Joyce managed. Carr was, by all accounts, a success in the role but wound up in a legal row with Joyce over the cost of a pair of trousers used in the play. Carr lost the court case and, for his trouble, became the basis of an unflattering potty-mouth in Joyce's epochal work of modern literature, Ulysses.

That much is true enough. But Stoppard's Travesties does history one better by having Carr (John Mercer) meet and interact with not only Joyce (Kevin Kelleher) but also two other historical lights sojourning in Zurich during the war: Romanian poet Tristan Tzara (Kevin Clarke), a founder of Dada, and Lenin (Richard Louis James), leader of the Bolshevik Revolution. In the play's enthralling razzle-dazzle of fractured scenes – blending history, fantasy, and form into a banana daiquiri of theatrical magic – all three figures pass through the prism of Carr's addled mind as it gazes back on 1918 from the untrustworthy vantage point of old age. Indeed, the action often takes the familiar form – both to Carr and theater audiences – of Wilde's classic farce. Hence the presence of a sister to Carr named Gwendolyn (Gwen Larsen) and a librarian named Cecily (Rica Anderson). Neither is the action above conforming to a Joycean limerick, or a dadaist cutup, or a bit of music hall flummery, either, as Carr decorates the darkening recesses of his own past with his febrile imagination. Along the way, Stoppard ruminates on weighty themes with an effervescent wit and protean capacity for theatrical invention, turning on, among other things, the nature of historical memory and the social roles of the artist and the revolutionary (and the extent to which they might be one and the same).

Carr's faulty memory suggests a larger problem with history. The play begins in a library, where the printed word reigns inviolable in a land of semi-silence – regularly punctuated by blasts of professional shushing. But suddenly Tzara appears, cutting up words with a pair of scissors and tossing them in his hat. Nearby, Joyce collects words and phrases as building blocks to new forms for the novel. Across the library, Lenin shapes words into a political agenda aiming at nothing less than the toppling of nations. All three chip away there at the foundations of the status quo.

In the Shotgun Players' sharp and spirited production, Alf Pollard's attractively sprawling romper-room set merges the library with Carr's room, as well as touches of Dada iconography (including a versatile toilet) atop a stage floor painted with a map of Europe, to underscore the muddle that is our narrator's memory. From the recess at the back containing his dimly lit chamber, Carr ventures out with slow curiosity, attracted by the action of the other characters, which constitute his doddering thought processes coming into focus. Scenes unravel and replay themselves as Carr adjusts the memory in his head, while in between Greg Scharpen's sound design marks the time warps with an eerie cacophony.

Stoppard's blazing 1974 play leaves us, not unlike old Carr, in a swirling eddy of ideas and political positions. So wittily and ingeniously constructed is the play that, at times, it seems the center cannot hold, and mere irony is loosed upon the audience. Mercer as Carr, however, holds this widening gyre together with enviable timing and admirable comic aplomb. His sympathetic touches of the curmudgeon and the eccentric also find just the right balance. In Carr's imagination, Kelleher's Joyce is a trickster and rhymester with catlike movements and the force of a coiled spring. Clarke imbues Tzara with a Chaplinesque charm, and his unhinged tantrums (in the face of Carr's stubborn Victorian defense of modernity) have a revealing poignancy to them (Dada's irrationalism and nihilism seeming more than reasonable under the circumstances). James's Lenin has some of the heavier material to distill (a fair amount of dialogue is taken verbatim from historical sources) and does so with a relish that pivots affectingly on the ascetic revolutionist's deeply ambivalent relationship to art. Deliveries among the supporting players can be uneven, but the cast as a whole displays considerable finesse with the cirque du salon demands of Stoppard's script and Sabrina Klein's playful direction.

If Stoppard's brilliantly equivocal play leaves the audience, in the end, suspended between his characters' arguments concerning the individual's role in history and the proper stance he or she should take in the face of Western civilization's catastrophic expansion, this state of abeyance invites the synapses to keep firing long after the curtain comes down. Joyce's answer to Carr's cheeky question "What did you do during the Great War?" might as well be addressed to everyone: "I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?"

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