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SF Weekly, December 15, 2004


Literary Sampling
What Tom Stoppard did in this 1974 play would be too expensive to try today


The happiest game Tom Stoppard has played onstage may be Travesties, his 1974 blender-spin of 20th-century revolutionaries who all lived in Zurich in 1917. James Joyce, writing Ulysses; Tristan Tzara, developing dada; and Vladimir Lenin, receiving news of a distant revolution, are dimly remembered by an obscure British consular official named Henry Carr, who in real life really did play Algernon in a Zurich production of The Importance of Being Earnest, business-managed by Joyce. The play lost money, as these things do, and Carr fell out with Joyce over the price of a pair of pants.

"'What was he like, Joyce?' I'm often asked," says Carr to the audience, lounging in a chair with his pipe. Carr's thoroughly bourgeois, and he reminisces about his revolutionary acquaintances like an English tourist narrating a holiday in Rome. Switzerland in 1917 was "a state of rest ... the still center of the wheel of war." The Alps, the Red Cross, neutrality -- Carr's idea of Switzerland isn't far from Walt Disney's, so it's no surprise when Joyce (Kevin Kelleher) walks on wearing a green velvet coat and a huge emerald bow tie, ash plant in hand, spouting limericks.

John Mercer plays Carr with the right amount of shambling pompousness in this lively revival by the Shotgun Players. He sits on a carefully disorganized stage that serves as both the Zurich public library and Carr's own sitting room. Piles of suitcases, a Union Jack, Tinkertoys, a toilet, and a real hammer and sickle clutter the space. Cafe tables rest stage left, representing the Meierei bar, where Tzara came up with dadaism. The floor's painted with a warped map of Europe and western Asia. Designer Alf Pollard has transformed Shotgun's cavernous new home at the Ashby Stage into a gleeful playpen, and Sabrina Klein's tightly directed Travesties -- with its tromp through history and art, its pungent remarks about war -- seems like a perfect inauguration.

The most surprising part of the play is how well it moves, considering its thick layers of allusion and lack of plot. Carr's wandering story about the pants controversy is half dream, half memory -- a confusion of personal and European history with The Importance of Being Earnest. In real life Joyce, Lenin, and Tzara most likely never met. But in Carr's vain and bloated memory, they all had something vague to do with Oscar Wilde and his famous play. In witty but dreamlike fashion, Carr's manservant Bennett blurs into a butler from Earnest; Carr and Tzara become the play's protagonists, Algernon and Jack; Joyce's personal secretary and a Marxist librarian become its Gwendolyn and Cecily. Each transformation is irreverent and hilarious, and Stoppard's show moves from travesty to travesty, like a vaudeville revue.

Carr wears a dark-ketchup velvet coat, a dark mustard tie, and a brass-buttoned vest. His hair is full but gray. When Tzara -- a foppish, monocled Kevin Clarke -- criticizes the Great War ("It's capitalism with the gloves off"), Carr, who fought in it, grows belligerent. "I'll tell you what's really going on," he snaps. "I went to war for patriotism, because my country needed me." Tzara declares that Europe has perverted the meaning of fine words like "honor" and "courage," so he reserves the right to pervert the meaning of "art." Then they lapse into a scene lifted almost whole from Earnest. The better you know your Wilde and Joyce -- and dadaism, and Marxist-Leninism -- the more layers of jokes you can unpeel, but you don't need to know any of it to enjoy even the scene, for example, in which a skeptical Joyce interrogates Tzara in the formal style of the "Ithaca" chapter from Ulysses.

Richard Louis James' Lenin seems to live in a world of his own; he has dyed eyebrows and chilling blue eyes and looks determined to the point of dementia. "Literature must become party literature," he says. "Down with unpartisan littérateurs!" And, later, "We must hit heads! Hit them! Though in theory we are against violence." James is perfect for the role; he finds the right balance of dottiness and steel.

The second act suffers from the lack of plot, but Gwen Larsen and Rica Anderson make up for it with bright, overbrimming performances as the secretary and the Marxist librarian, respectively, portraying Gwendolyn and Cecily. The climax of the play is a chirpy musical recapitulation of the Cecily-Gwendolyn catfight over tea from Earnest, which Kimberly Dooley has choreographed beautifully.

Travesties is a work of literary sampling, and it's incredible to realize that what Stoppard did with it would now be illegal, or at least prohibitively expensive, in the United States. Thirty years ago anyone could steal at will from an 80-year-old play like Earnest. Now a playwright (and theater company) would have to pay heavy fees to riff so brilliantly on, say, Brecht, Pirandello, or Shaw -- just name a playwright active in 1924 -- because of copyright extensions pushed through by the Disney Corp. and the spirit of Henry Carr. It's a travesty. (Sorry.) For all its obsession with other times and other places, Stoppard's classic still belongs to 1974.

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