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A CurtainUp BerkshiresBerkshire Review

Travesties by Elyse Sommer
I learned three things in Zurich during the war. I wrote them down. Firstly, you're either a revolutionary or you're not, and if you're not you might has well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can't be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary. I forget the third thing.
-- Henry Carr
 David Garrison & Stephen Spinella
David Garrison as Henry Carr & Stephen Spinella as James Joyce
(Photo: Richard Feldman)

There isn't a playwright alive who can rival Tom Stoppard for enlisting humor in the interest of raising serious issues, for acting as matchmaker between historical and invented characters. And there isn't likely to be a production any time soon to rival the Williamstown Theatre Festival's revival of Travesties. The acting and staging make Stoppard's witty farce fresher than ever and send the laugh meter zooming.

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In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Tom Stoppard borrowed two minor characters from Hamlet to play the major roles in his own ironic take on what's center stage and what isn't. In Travesties, Stoppard has an insignificant English consulate official named Henry Carr meet James Joyce, who happened to be taking a break from his own literary endeavors to put on a production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. What's more Carr ends up being cast in the leading role.

Stoppard's play, written in 1975 and revised in 1993, uses Joyce's detour from his own writing to produce Wilde's drawing room comedy was actually based on fact; so was the casting of an inexperienced actor whose performance was something of a triumph which soured when the new actor had a falling out with Joyce that led to a law suit. But Stoppard, not content with one situation that's loaded with opportunities for his brand of intellectual fun and word games and often wilder than Wildean wit, transformed this theatrical brouhaha into a backdrop for his own series of unlikely convergence of events. Thus Travesties has Henry Carr (David Garrison), a bathrobe clad old vaudevillian, serve as narrator of his own fuzzy and uproariously funny recollections of his 1917 meeting with Joyce (Stephen Spinella) as well as two other major early twentieth century figures -- Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, a.k.a. Lenin, (George Paslawsky) and Tristan Tzara (Michael Stuhlbarg), founder of the artistic movement known as Dada. It's a perfect set-up for cloaking concepts of art, revolution and patriotism entertainingly in farce.

The cast of fact-based characters also includes two ladies, Cicely (Kali Rocha) and Gwendolyn (Lynn Collins), borrowed, from The Importance of Being Earnest to assist Lenin and Joyce in the diverse literary endeavors that have brought them to the Zurich library, Lenin to work on his communist manifestos and Joyce to pore over Dublin map books in preparation for his ground breaking Ulysses.

Though "librarianess" Cicely, whose interest in literature is "strictly alphabetical" (having read up to the letter G she knows Gilbert but not Sullivan and is unaware of her literary origins because she's many a letter removed from knowing Wilde), admonishes the audience to be silent, don't count on a quiet bookish evening. For one thing there's the ebullient Dadaist Tzara at a third desk merrily cutting up and rearranging sonnets; for another there's Lenin's anxious wife Nadya (Candy Buckley) interrupting the quiet with news of revolutionary activities in St. Petersburg. And, oh yes, Tzarra is also a ladies' man who becomes enamored of Gwendolyn and there are periodic outbursts of singing and dancing -- most enchantingly so from Spinella who here gets to demonstrate his nimble-footedness more than he did as the droll Freddy Malins in Richard Nelson's play with music adaptation of Joyce's short story "The Dead." review).

Stoppard's imaginative mingling of historic and literary characters and the wordplay that has Joyce spouting limericks and parodying Ulysses in a debate with Tzara has inspired director Gregory Boyd to further charge up the comedy with sexual sizzle and a dash of slapstick. This leads to Kali Rocha's deliciously proper and prim Cicely uninhibitedly baring her breast to Tzara. It transforms the Earnest scene in which Cicely teases Gwendolyn over her penchant for overly sweetened tea into a food fight. This last is a somewhat too overly drawn out touch in a generally flawless production which, even at close to three hours, soars forward on a wave of laughter and intellectual stimulation.

The entire cast couldn't be better. David Garrison, with whose work I'm not too familiar, is a revelation as the schlumpy old Carr as well as his not particularly younger self as evoked by his erratic memory. Stephen Spinellla, who seems to get better and better with every role he unertakes, is an at once pixyish and wry James Joyce. Someone ought to write a musical for him. Michael Stuhlbarg will have you ga-ga as the Dadaist Tzara. Kali Rocha, another actress I've enjoyed and admired in the past, is a fabulous femme demure and fatale, with Lynn Collins' Gwendolyn zestfully joining in for the manner and clothing striptease. Candy Buckley as Nadya and Gregor Paslawsky as Lenin make the most of their somewhat less showy roles and Herb Foster maintains the stoical pose of Bennett the butler even when a pie lands in his face.

Set designer Neil Patel has outdone himself in creating a set that suggests both the feel of an English drawing room comedy and the fractured vision of Dada and Ulysses. Add Judith Dolan's costumes, Rui Rita's ingenious lighting and John Gromada's sound effects which include a Cuckoo clock's insistent reminder that we are in Zurich, the cuckoo clock capital noted for its order and punctuality and you have all the makings of a Broadway-worthy production.

Like other Stoppard plays, Travesties has enough witty mots for a mini books of quotations. Many strike a particularly timely note, like Tzara's " wars are fought for oil wells." Much is nonsense but as one of Stoppard's own characters so aptly puts it: "It may be nonsense, but at least it's clever nonsense." Considered in the light of this production, truer words were never spoken.

See our Tom Stoppard page for more about the author, and links to Stoppard plays reviewed.

By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Gregory Boyd
Cast: David Garrison (Henry Carr), Michael Stuhlbarg (Tristan Tzara), Stephen Spinella (James Joyce), Gregor Paslawsky (Lenin), Herb Foster (Bennett), Lynn Collins (Gwendolyn), Kali Rocha (Cecily), Candy Buckley (Nadya)
Scenic design: Neil Patel
Costume design: Judith Dolan
Sound & music design: John Gromada
Lighting design: Rui Rita
Choreography: Marlo Hunter
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one 10-minute intermission
Adams Memorial Theatre,Williams Town Theatre Festival 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA (413/597-3400)
web address
August 8, 2003 -- August 17, 2003
Tuesday through Friday, 8:00 p.m.; Thursdays at 3pm; Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8:30; Sundays, 2 p.m.
Tickets: $20-$53
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer basedAugust 9th performance
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