If one is extremely lucky, he or she will have had the pleasure of knowing at one time or another someone like James Joyce. If they are even luckier, they also will have enjoyed the company of a person like Vladimir Lenin. By the time they happen to encounter Tristan Tzara, well, my apologies; the very concept of “luck” will have probably been eradicated by meeting’s end.
For erstwhile actor Henry Carr, some of this enviable providence must have come his way, as he encountered all three of these artistic and political luminaries, all while working in Switzerland’s British consulate.
Or at least, I think he did. Or he does. Thinks, I mean. It’s so hard to be entirely sure about anything these days.
You see, Carr himself is playing a duplicitously dual role, as is every famous or near-famous denizen in this play, which creates a dream world in which real-life figures interact in ways they never did in the real world. Not only was Carr a part of a great experimental era in real life, but he also becomes the product of an author himself in “Travesties” by playwright Tom Stoppard, whose “Travesties” opened last night in an inconsistently inventive, frustratingly safe production at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall.
The play takes the form of an extended reminiscence from both an elderly and younger Carr — Ben Lauer ’13, handling his dual role admirably — filled with the kinds of contradictions, embellishments and narrative jumbling that could be found not only in the hazy fields of one’s own memory, but also in the intensely subjective works of a modernist like Joyce. Stoppard fits Carr’s Switzerland recollections around the story of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” a production in which Carr served as the Algernon and Joyce, the manager with bold, formalistic flourishes. Stoppard’s haphazard plot functions more as a thoughtful exploration of the process of memory than as an efficacious statement on the purpose of art. The play could be described best as a discussion of that discussion. This would, however, in all likelihood, have Lenin angrily storming out by intermission.
But in examining theater professor Laurie Wolf’s presentation of these questions and their “answers” (though responses may be a more accurate term), there appears to me a revolutionary impulse that went unfulfilled for much of the evening. This production seems tamer and more traditional than Stoppard’s free-wheeling, nigh-schizophrenic wit would imply. Taking Carr’s memory to be imperfect and his characterizations of these Important People to be the product of their reputations rather than his own experiences, it’s easy to accept a James Joyce — played by dead-ringer Robin Crigler ’14 — who has somehow overcome his phobias and ailments to give bombastic recitations, or a Lenin — playd by an impassioned Nick Martin ’13 — who delivers speeches as a sizzling orator instead of a patient lecturer, as he was often described. But why, then, is Tristan Tzara—Miles Drawdy ’14 — a prominent figure in Dadaism, not taken to his illogical extreme? It shouldn’t be too ludicrous to suggest that a founder of anti-art could be a little weirder. And why, if what we’re seeing is only limited by one man’s imagination, do so many of these outlandish conversations carry with them the casual beats of small talk? Certainly this lack of exploration could be excused for the scenes that owe so much to Wilde’s intentionally one-dimensional staging. But in what may be my favorite scene of “Travesties,” a conversation between Joyce and Tzara with a style lifted straight out of the “Ithaca” chapter of Ulysses, the absurdity of the dialogue was bound, not buoyed, by the characters’s apparent compulsion to keep their seats. Perhaps Joyce’s ulcer finally kicked in.
These issues became less evident, I am glad to report, by the second act. With the scene between the two female “Earnest” characters-turned-research assistants, Gwendolyn and Cecily, Grace Mendenhall ’13 and Nicole Boyd ‘14, “Travesties” found its footing and its balance. The incomparably combined cleverness of Wilde and Stoppard became a wild affair thanks to their daringly gratuitous emotionality and rapid pacing. In fact, everyone on stage after intermission seemed more in tune with the tone intended at the beginning — perhaps a trick of the gaudier, more Wildean costumery? If so, my compliments to Patricia Wesp.
“Travesties” is not without its charms, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that this production does not have its fair share of uproariously funny moments. But the primary disappointment lies in its hesitance, its insecurities, its coming relentlessly close to the carnival of gleeful nonsense suggested in the opening music. As a latter-day Lenin put it, “Revolution is not a dinner party.” True enough. So if I could give this “Travesties” a bit of friendly advice, I’d suggest it start by getting up from the table.