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SF Chronicle, December 11, 2004


Shotgun Players tackle Stoppard's zany wit, as 'Travesties' takes on Wilde, Joyce, dadaism

By Robert Hurwitt


James Joyce speaks in limericks, Lenin moves like a clockwork figure and Dada founder Tristan Tzara utters dialogue from "The Importance of Being Earnest."

Tom Stoppard may not be the only person to have considered the theatrical possibilities in the fact that Joyce, Lenin and Tzara were all trapped in Zurich during World War I. To imagine their possible interactions is one thing. To frame them in scenes from Oscar Wilde's masterpiece -- and grace them with Shakespearean pastiche, "Ulysses" parody and Wilde's dialogue as a vaudeville routine -- is Stoppardian genius.

"Travesties" has been justly celebrated as one of Stoppard's wittier and most ingeniously constructed comedies since its debut in 1974, though it hasn't been seen much here since it was an American Conservatory Theater hit a few years later. It's tough to pull off, with its large cast, complex staging requirements and the demands of its peculiar combination of verbal wit and madcap zaniness. The Shotgun Players haven't mastered its complexities, but there's still considerable pleasure to be had in the company's current revival at its Ashby Stage.

There's sheer delight in the wildly cluttered setting concocted by director Sabrina Klein and designer Alf Pollard. The apparent chaos of mismatched furniture, crammed bookshelves and odd balcony serves quite well for Stoppard's primary locales -- an English diplomat's living room and the Zurich library -- and even better to echo some of the play's themes, with its stairs that lead nowhere, large Union Jack, subtler hammer and sickle and a freestanding toilet making obvious reference to Marcel Duchamp's urinal "Fountain."

The year is (roughly, as Stoppard explains at the end) 1918. Tzara (Kevin Clarke) is conducting Dada cabarets in Zurich cafes. Lenin (Richard Louis James as a fervent look-alike) and his wife, Nadya (an intense Davina Cohen), have received word of the overthrow of the czar and are trying to get back to Russia.

All three are habitues of the library, as is Joyce (thin, ascetic Kevin Kelleher in the cleverly mismatched suits of costumer Christine Crook), who's writing "Ulysses." Joyce is also helping to put on a production of "Earnest" - - which he actually did. And, as is also historical fact, he casts a clerk at the British Consulate, Henry Carr (John Mercer), to play the lead role of Algernon (which led to the lawsuits between Joyce and Carr, also featured in the play).

Carr's sister Gwendolyn (a fluttery romantic Gwen Larsen) and the librarian Cecily (a fiery but swooning revolutionary Rica Anderson) are Stoppard's inventions, for obvious Wildean convenience -- as is Carr's butler Bennett (David Valdez). Cecily is assisting Lenin in his work, as Gwendolyn is doing research for Joyce. Make Tzara a suitor to Carr's sister --

using the name Jack at the library and Tristan in the world -- and Carr in love with Cecily, and the action falls neatly into whole hunks of Wilde's dialogue.

But that alone would be too easy for Stoppard. "Travesties" is also a memory play, with the aged Carr trying, and failing, to reconstruct events. Which leads to complete disruptions of chronology, as his memory jumps its tracks and starts over again, several lines back, replaying the same scene in a different mode. Klein and her cast and crew make the most of the "time- slips" (Stoppard's term), with mechanical-clock movement patterns, shifts in Robert Ted Anderson's lights and a blur of tapes rewinding and cuckoo clocks in Greg Scharpen's sound design.

Stoppard piles on the wit, with one entire scene written in limericks and another mimicking the catechism chapter in "Ulysses," not to mention a spot- the-reference, tour de force of lines from Shakespeare plays. In general, Klein and her cast do better with the more farcical elements of the script than the verbal wit. Kelleher is engagingly comic as Joyce as a magician. Larsen and Anderson are hilarious in a passage from "Earnest" performed as the "Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean" vaudeville routine (with apt, funny choreography by Kimberly Dooley).

Clarke hits his punch lines well, but his mannered Tzara doesn't come into clear focus. Mercer hasn't found a workable rhythm for Carr's long monologues, and his comic timing seemed off at Thursday's performance. Except for the scene between Gwendolyn and Cecily, the "Earnest" passages lacked energy, while some of the historical material -- especially involving Carr and Lenin -- was almost didactic.

"Travesties" wouldn't be Stoppard's last play to deal with revolution and commitment -- in art, politics and life -- or with Russian socialism in particular. His massive 2002 trilogy, "The Coast of Utopia," treats the subject in considerably more breadth and depth, or so we're told. "Utopia" still hasn't been seen in the Bay Area. That makes the Shotgun "Travesties" something of a challenge to ACT, which has staged just about every Stoppard play since "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" -- including the American premieres of "Indian Ink" and "The Invention of Love." If ACT can't, or won't, bring us "Utopia," who will?;

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