I was acquainted with Tom Stoppard’s penchant for verbal pyrotechnics before I went to see Travesties at Theatre 3. I appreciate T3 for many reasons, one of them being that they’re not put off by the cerebral. They understand that intellect can play a part in theatrical performance and still be entertaining. Travesties is exhilarating. An aural montage of wordplay and reflection disguised as mischief and glib, loopy, rhetoric. The danger of such constructions (it reminded me of a collage by Dada artist Kurt Schwitters) is their tendency to be too impressed with their own cleverness. Travesties opened at The Royal Shakespeare Company in 1974, at a time when they probably had much more tolerance for such gizmos. That being said, it’s still immensely pleasurable and somewhat dazzling in its actualization. It’s a giddy, funny, smart romp, flowing over with flashes of historical insight and a sort of kinetic wisdom.
The protagonist of Travesties is Henry Carr, who lived in Zurich, Switzerland in 1917, at the same time as Tristan Tzara (poet; founder of the Dada movement) Vladimir Lenin (Communist Politico) and James Joyce (author of Ulysses). The content of Travesties is Carr’s recollections in 1970, which are subject to unintentional distortion and meddling. Being a member of The English Consulate in Switzerland, Carr is advantageously placed to cross paths with Tzara, Joyce and Lenin, and thus exchange ideas, match wits, spar, debate and imbibe with them.
Aspects of each character’s identity pops up as recurring theme. At one point, Joyce invites Carr to play the lead in a local production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest. Later in the play, Carr pretends to be Tzara’s brother, a plot thread from Wilde’s comedy. Two of the three female characters in the play, Cecily and Gwendolen, also mirror characters from the same piece. And so on.
Travesties bears more than a passing resemblance to British playwright Terry Johnson’s Insignificance, produced about 8 years after Stoppard’s play premiered. Based on the same premise, the intersection of four famous historical characters (Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Joseph McCarthy, Albert Einstein) at the same time and place, with much of the same whimsical spirit and a great deal more gravity. I’m not saying Johnson did it better, though Insignificance feels more cohesive and was probably inspired by Travesties.
Stoppard’s play is a celebration of language, that often tries to fob itself off as a mishmash. A whirlwind. It becomes evident pretty early in the proceedings that Stoppard is giving various events, both petty and monumental, the same value. It’s as if he took The History of Civilization and retold it with puppet shows, nursery rhymes and drinking songs. It’s exhausting and scintillating and (here’s the catch) works much better if you don’t overthink it. And for the most part, they carry it off.
The cast deserves profuse accolades and congratulation, to say this physically demanding, mentally taxing, slapstick picnic of culture and politics couldn’t have been easy is like saying Joan of Arc died of fever. The work (and play) must have been demanding but it paid off, as you can see in the results. Jakie Cabe as Carr and Chad Peterson were especially agile and charismatic. If you ever need a personal trainer with gobs of manic energy, panache and poise, I suggest you look them up.
Theatre 3 presents Tom Stoppard’s Travesties playing February 10th – March 12th. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-871-3300. www.theatre3dallas.com