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Travesties at A.C.T.

Who’s Your Dada?

The first ten minutes of "Travesties", written by Tom Stoppard, is particularly disorienting, but in a way that turns out to make sense later (if that makes any sense). The main character, Henry Carr, an elderly, loquacious, senile English gentleman, rolls around on a stark stage in an antique wheelchair, dressed in a fez-like hat and richly embroidered robe, rambling on about his reminiscences of living in Zurich in 1917.

Suddenly, several oversized empty picture frames, frozen at odd angles, descend from above and hover. Then Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara, the Dadaist, all make brief, disconnected appearances while Mr. Carr holds forth, losing his already shaky train of thought more often than not. The pace of his delivery, his finely honed plummy English, the smattering of Russian, German , and French spoken by the other characters, and the density and piquancy of Stoppard’s richly interconnected humor almost make one wonder what language the play is being delivered in, and whether it will be possible to pick up on a fraction of the jokes, discern a plot line, or get a glimmer of any deep, hidden messages.

Fortunately, it’s a comedy, and the cast not only masters the dialog, they project wonderfully comedic body language, so that even if you’re momentarily flummoxed by exotic and convoluted references to the obscure and incestuous intellectual, artistic, and political movements of early twentieth century Europe, you can grab a few early belly laughs at the characters’ clowning and sniping. (The character of Lenin is played by none other than Geoff Hoyle, one of the most gifted clowns and comedic actors of our time. The other actors are also completely up to par with him in this regard).

Stoppard’s construct in this arch theatrical confection is to riff on the imaginary interactions of actual historical characters who all coincidentally happened to end up in Zurich during the First World War. James Joyce, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and Tristan Tzara could not seem more randomly diverse in their artistic and political temperaments, but Stoppard exploits the historical fact of their sharing a time and place, however briefly, to launch a funny, dense, and unpretentious query into the nature of art and politics.

While it’s highly refreshing that there’s no underlying message or moral to the play -- this is entirely deliberate in Stoppard’s work -- the material is neither nihilistic or shallowly satirical. Stoppard uses his familiarity with the work and theories of many of the artists, philosophers, and politicians of the day as material to stage a Dada pastiche of a comedic intellectual debate.

As the play unfolds, the elderly Mr. Carr becomes the young Mr. Carr, a vaguely aristocratic clotheshorse in the service of the British consulate in Zurich, and we are transported to his elegantly appointed drawing room, replete with voluptuous Nouveau wallpaper and proper English butler (also played by Geoff Hoyle). We then understand the context of the senile ramblings at the beginning of the play, and watch as Lenin, Joyce, and Tzara interact with each other and with two lovely blondish ingénues: Gwendolyn, Henry’s sister, and Cecily, the passionate communist librarian. The plot, such as it is, proceeds in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan or Mozart operetta- zany romantic misunderstandings, silly, spicy intrigue, and happy endings. Over this light structure, Stoppard overlays a Groundhog Day device where a scene gets rewound, and repeats up to seven or eight times with different results each time.

Stoppard use of one-liners (and two-liners) is masterful, electric, and relentless. On the nature of the artist: “’Man can’t live by bread alone!’ ‘Yes he can, it’s art he can’t live on.’ ” On Switzerland: “Here in Zurich culture is the continuation of war by other means,” “Switzerland, the still center of the wheel of war,” and “the mystical Swissticality of it…” On Joyce: “An amazing intellect bent on shaping itself into the form of its own monument.”

The acting, direction, design, choreography, lighting, sound, and everything else in this production are all top notch. (The dialogue coaching in particular stands out). Geordie Johnson as Henry Carr is lithe, facile, passionate, nimble, and eloquent, if a trifle sartorially obsessive. Anthony Fusco as James Joyce conveys a vivid impression if the quixotic, courtly, iconoclastic and impecunious Irish genius. Gregory Wallace’s Tzara is ripe with swaggering dilettantish silliness, but quite capable of exquisitely phrased roaring tirades on the meaninglessness of the Old Order that tend to end with eruptions of “Dada Dada Dada” punctuating his expansive pointless declamatory gestures.

Geoff Hoyle’s Lenin and Bennett (the butler) are beautiful studies in pugnacious, phlegmatic fluidity, and an intriguing use of his natural talents. René Augesen as Gwendolyn is the perfect breathless acolyte to Joyce’s Great Man, as Allison Jean White’s Cecily is to Lenin. The two of them perform a precisely coordinated Gilbert and Sullivan-like bitch fight, complete with patter, underlying snipes and piquant pot shots. And Joan Mankin’s Nadya is the perfect dour Russian battle axe, accompanying Lenin on his heroic journey

"Travesties" doesn’t try to explain the four intertwined personalities and their alternately conflicting and overlapping belief systems: Dada, communism, surrealism, capitalism, and existentialism- that’s not really the point. It’s rather difficult, after all, to be serious about a subject like Dada. But some context is provided: Tzara’s defense of the movement may be flip - it’s all because the war has made everything meaningless - but it has the ring of truth. The silliness and absurdity of movements like Dada were a natural response to the cataclysmic social chaos that attended the first two decades of the twentieth century. The nihilism and alienation inherent in movements like Dada, Absurdism, and Existentialism were a natural response to the cataclysmic social chaos that attended the first two decades of the twentieth century. By locating a real intellectual debate about the nature and relevance of the artist inside a whacky, kaleidoscopic mélange, I think he’s revealed some of the big questions lurking beneath our laughter.

Hats off to A.C.T. for a superb production, and a fitting inauguration to the newly named American Conservatory Theater.

at American Conservatory Theater
(Formerly Geary Theater)
Runs through October 15th
Tickets, $25- $80