by Annette Hinkle
Well, the folks at Bay Street Theater promised us a summer of “Art and Revolution,” and with their current production of Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties,” they ain’t kidding.
A note of caution: don’t go expecting light summer theatrical fare that will allow you to zone out for a couple hours after a hard day at the beach. This play requires your attention — in fact, it demands it.
Another note of caution: Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not always sure what is going on. This play is based on the addled memory of one old man, Henry Carr, 60 years after the fact. Beneath the madcap, slapstick-filled (but hardly linear) retelling of Carr’s memories of Zurich, 1917 is a tale chock-full of mindboggling upheaval which took place throughout Europe as a result of the “War to End All Wars,” which, as we now know, didn’t live up to its billing.
But “Travesties” does pay off, at least for those who get it. Those who don’t are apt to leave at intermission, which is probably why Bay Street is now handing out an explanatory sheet to put the play — and its time frame — into context.
Stoppard’s Zurich in 1917 is the calm eye in the storm of war. When the play opens, present in the city and the social circles of British diplomat Henry Carr (Richard Kind) are three towering figures in literature, politics and art —writer James Joyce (Carson Elrod) who is at work on his masterpiece “Ulysses,” Vladimir Lenin (Andrew Weems), still a minor player in Russian politics but one who is beating the drum for revolution back home, and Tristan Tzara (Michael Benz) a self-proclaimed artist who is making a mockery of the accepted ideals of art and poetry through a new form of expression — Dadaism.
The political, social and literary revolutions detailed in “Travesties” are particularly resonant. June 28 marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Sophie which started WWI. The war introduced a new type of global conflict and its outcome had ramifications we’re still dealing with today.
In the play, Joyce, Lenin and Tzara are passionate in their missions and their respective roles in ushering in a new world order as borders shift and imperial powers fall. Each believes he is on the cutting edge and correct side of changing times. The three are also fixtures in the local library and supporting each of these brilliant men in their work are the strong-willed women who promote, assist and admire them — Gwendolen (Julia Motyka), Cecily (Emily Trask) and Nadya (Isabel Keating).
Carr is acquainted with them all and he spars brilliantly with the visionaries (and the women) through a series of abstract debates in which language is twisted, alliterated and at times, hilariously misappropriated. War breeds intellectuals, revolutionaries, writers and artists. So is art a reaction to society or does society merely react to its art? These are the sorts of heady questions that are posed, yet rarely answered, in Stoppard’s entirely unpredictable script.
Goading Carr on with an undercurrent of proletariat rising is his servant, Bennett (Aloysius Gigl), who, at the repetitive chiming of a cuckoo clock, offers a daily recounting of news from the Russian front in a brilliant illustration of how Carr’s memory is deteriorating.
Wrapped around the entire package are clever references to Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” As a subplot, Joyce casts Carr as Algernon in a production of the play. In truth, the real Carr actually did appear in a production of “Earnest” in which Joyce was involved. That production led to Joyce and Carr suing one another for minor damages, and Joyce ultimately worked an unflattering image of Carr into “Ulysses.” Much of that backstory finds its way into “Travesties;” and Wilde’s play — which revolves around the mistaken identity of two men who inadvertently convince the two women they love that there is only one of them — is mirrored in “Travesties” with Henry and Tristan using false identities to woo Cecily and Gwendolen respectively.
Take note — Stoppard’s rather stereotypical and myopic portrayal of his female characters will likely turn off some audience members, while a striptease with baring of breasts and a whipped cream female wrestling match will no doubt do exactly the opposite for others. That alone may be enticement enough to ensure several audience members return to their seats for Act II.
But what’s truly interesting about “Travesties” is that by play’s end, we see how Carr’s recollection has deceived him — and us. For while Joyce, Lenin and Tzara were all in Zurich during the war, their tenure didn’t necessarily overlap and timelines have been conveniently blurred to bring them into contact with one another — and Carr. In addition, characters who seem to stand for one thing, do, in fact, represent something entirely different in reality.
Gregory Boyd directs the production which is dazzling in complexity, if occasionally confounding in motive. But that’s Stoppard. As a whole, the cast deserves great kudos for their mastery of the complicated script, particularly the expressive and hilarious Kind whose performance — and need to advance the action through tongue twisting soliloquies — is astounding.
Scenic design by Neil Patel and Caleb Levengood and sound by John Gromada go a long way toward elevating the entire production to the comedic level required.
Yes, it really is a comedy — if you’re willing to play along and don’t expect to get it all, you might enjoy it all. Since it is summer, let’s offer a beach analogy. The best way to approach this production is to allow it to wash over you like the incoming surf. Struggle against it, you’ll drown. Go with the flow, and you just might be surprised by the fun you can have.
“Travesties” runs through July 20 at Bay Street Theater on the corner of Main and Bay streets in Sag Harbor. General admission tickets are $60.75 to $75. “Student Sunday” matinees allows high school and college students to attend the 2 p.m. show those days for free. A $30 ticket is available for those under age 30. For tickets and more information, visit baystreet.org or call the box office at (631) 725-9500.