So one of the things that happened during World War I was that a significant number of creative people took off to go live in Switzerland for the duration. Quite a few of those in flight turned out to have pretty significant names.
Jump forward a few decades; in the ‘70s, Tom Stoppard, the contemporary British playwright who has established his own impressive reputation as a top-notch, fiercely intellectual, funny wordsmith, decided to toss three or four of the really big guys among those refugees into a play and jiggle it up and down to see what he’d get.
What he got is a truly extraordinary piece of writing, Travesties, now playing in a terrifically staged production by the Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.
The short form of this review of the play is to say simply that the play is brilliant: breath-takingly, and maybe sometimes even out-of-sight, brilliant. And the production is first-rate. Acting, costumes, and right up there with them, the stage setting itself, top-notch.
The only problem is that Stoppard is so darn’ smart that he can expect a bit more out of you than you are really prepared to give. It can be a bit humbling.
Alf Pollard, the set designer, has created a remarkable stage setting which, while essentially indescribable, manages to simultaneously convey both an early 20th century atmosphere and the disciplined chaos of the play itself. My favorites of the seemingly unrelated items strewn around the stage are the fairly modern toilet and a 1920s-style radio dangling in mid-air. (Don’t let the toilet scare you; it makes a perfectly good desk if you sit on it backwards. Besides, it’s a good place to hide a prop or two that you might need later in the play).
The Ashby Theater’s stage is open and large. The space between the stage itself and the ceiling is enormous, but absolutely neither of these significant issues overwhelms the action of the play. It is a remarkable accomplishment for both set designer Pollard, and the director, Sabrina Klein.
Shotgun has obtained a strong cast for Travesties, with excellent supporting work for the four main characters. Henry Carr (flawlessly played by John Mercer) holds together the play’s outrageous collection of ideas, people and pot-shots at the world in general. Like the other major roles, Carr is based on one of the real people who was in Switzerland during World War I. Mercer does an extraordinary job as an elderly man with an unreliable memory and a passion for flawless dress.
Although he is a significant figure throughout the play, it seems appropriate to note that toward the beginning, Mercer successfully accomplishes the Herculean task of performing a four and a half page monologue without losing the audience.
For reasons known only to Stoppard the three kingpins that he settled on to feature in the play are James Joyce (Kevin Kelleher), Lenin (Richard Louis James), and Tristan Tzara (Kevin Clarke). The first two characters may be a little large to swallow, but certainly need no introduction, of course. However, “Tzara,” “Who’s he?”
Tzara was the founder of “Dada,” an artistic movement that has done its damage to our cultural scene and faded away—only to be replaced by other sources of mass confusion. Dadaism was apparently the first of the creative movements of the 20th century to take major steps away from the goal of portraying reality as most sane people experience it.
The Luddites among us cringe at Tzara’s memory. But enough of all that.
With a staggering leap that only a madman or a major theatrical genius would attempt, Stoppard elected to take this mish-mash of 20th century icons and deal with them ( who knows why?) in a play based on Oscar Wilde’s wonderful 19th century comedy The Importance of Being Ernest. In fact, so much of the humor in Travesties is based on Ernest that someone who is unacquainted with the earlier play may miss large chunks of some very good stuff in the evening’s entertainment.
Anyway, by all that’s sane and logical, the whole thing should have fallen apart at the seams before the play ever saw the light of day. No way. It’s terrific, and Shotgun has done a major job of staging.