Stunning performances captivate in ‘Travesties’

Tom Stoppard’s Travesties will be performed by Professor David Eppel’s Acting III twice more at the ’62 Center’s CenterStage before the curtain falls for good. Should you attend? That depends. Have you ever made jokes about Ulysses, Das Kapital and Dadaist manifestos within the span of ten minutes? Yes? Good. Have you ever referred to all three in a single lazily absurd linguistic ramble? Very good (unless this was during an art history conference, in which case: ugh). Have you never read any of the three works? Excellent.

Travesties is the (more or less) true tale of how James Joyce, Lenin, Dadist luminary Tristan Tzara and a British invalid turned temporary actor Henry Carr found (or didn’t) each other in Zurich, while WWI raged a few longitudinal and latitudinal degrees away.

The plot hinges on a production of The Importance of Being Ernest, managed by Joyce (historically, as well as in the play), for which Carr is serendipitously plucked to play Algernon (“Not Ernest-the other one”). Carr often discovers – or, more often, doesn’t discover – himself, overstating his role in the play, a tendency which typifies his general character as a boastful, patriotic, aristocratic Brit.

But this is just one of many ways in which Oscar Wilde’s play mirrors the characters and actors on stage. Indeed, Stoppard’s play mirrors, mimics and mocks Wilde’s famous comedy generously and ingeniously. Refreshing one’s memory of Stoppard’s theatrical predecessor before this weekend’s show might be far more valuable than delving in Ulysses, a work Carr recalls by its reputed original working title, “Elasticated Bloomers.” It is this sort of self-deprecatory, artistically anti-art, erudite puniness that is the core of the work. “It may be nonsense, but at least it’s clever nonsense.”

To return to my original query: should you attend? Well, if the above examples of banter are at all your cup of tea or, better yet, if you have ever drunk tea, then yes, you should probably grab a seat. Eben Hoffer ’10 is alarmingly successful in his alternating depictions of the old, senile, fumblingly narcissistic Carr and the young, vigorous, fabulously narcissistic Carr. Hoffer’s collection of fascinating gestures and facial ticks amounts to a small stockpile of questionable legality. When the old Carr “forgot” his train of thought, the audience felt awkwardly energized by Hoffer’s playful authenticity. Hoffer’s mix of irony, jocularity and confidence was rare and his command of the stage impressive. His overall performance was so solid that any critique I could give would be petty. However, I must note my qualms toward mid-play with Carr’s accent, which he carried off beautifully for most of the first act.

Speaking of English accents, however, the accent of Nathaniel Basch-Gould ’11 could not have been better in the secondary but still hilarious and wry part of Bennett, Carr’s servant. It is vaguely haughty, occasionally venomous and always perfectly balanced (like the fine wines that it is strongly suggested Bennett has been indulging in behind his master’s back). Basch-Gould’s sunken face and rigid body contrast incredibly well with Hoffer’s extravagant flair and the pair unexpectedly produce the most authentic chemistry of the play.
Decadent Dadaist Tristan Tzara is played safely and competently by Davern Wright ’08, but his performance left me wishing for a bit more exuberant manic-ness from the man who demanded “the right to urinate in different colours.” Wright’s interplay and interview in a long scene with Joyce, played by Terry Tamm ’08, never moves far beyond the text, getting laughs where it should, in the undeniable brilliance of Stoppard’s characteristically dazzling wordplay.

Tamm’s performance appeared perhaps too calculated, especially when placed alongside Hoffer’s more believable spontaneity. The scene between Tzara and Joyce is a difficult one, however, and some cuts were apparently made to it, under the direction of Eppel. Though understandable, the trimmed scene yearned for Stoppard’s suggested prop gags, such as Joyce producing a rabbit out of a hat, and Tzara smashing the crockery. Instead, Tzara stacked a few chairs in a Dadaist sculpture, placing a mini-rubber duck on top. Clever? Yes. Enough? No.

A more successful tête-à-tête occurs later, in the second act, between Gwendolyn (Katie Ort ’08) and Cecily (Casey York ’10). The two actresses, playing intellectually naive female assistants to the play’s more acclaimed male artists, both began the play not quite up to speed, it seemed, caricaturing their already caricatured characters. Nonetheless, by Stoppard’s brilliantly written song-scene, with increasingly ridiculous and emotional lines set to a methodically crescendoing vaudeville tune, “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean,” York and Ort had gained enough traction onstage to deliver reasonably rewarding performances. Similarly competent, but in a far less rhyme-oriented fashion, is Jesse Gordon ’10 as the brow-beating, brow-knitting, bombastic and humorless Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Is Travesties worth it? As Stoppard so aptly notes: “Art for art’s sake – I defecate!” By which I mean, yes.