Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., Oct. 10, 2003
'Travesties': Wilde Nights in Old Zurich
Austin Playhouse, through Oct. 26
Running Time: 2 hrs., 30 min.
In a strange coincidence, during the latter years of the Great War (1914-18), there was gathered in Zurich an odd assortment of individuals destined for great things in their various endeavors. For Lenin, it was to lead the revolution in Russia. For Tristan Tzara, it was to father Dadaism. For James Joyce, it was to put the finishing touches on his seminal work, Ulysses. And for Henry Carr, another historical figure of the time, but less well known -- well, to let the old Henry tell it, in this time of espionage and intrigue, it was to star as Algernon Moncrieff in an impromptu production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. In typical, brilliant fashion, playwright Tom Stoppard manages to mix all these ingredients into a mind-sharpening work that ultimately asks the big question: Is all art politics, or is it just escapist relief? Travesties poses and re-poses this query while scoring political and historical and literary and romantic point after point, all weirdly constructed as if the characters -- Lenin, Tzara, Joyce, Carr, and the rest -- were part of Wilde's comedy; that is, The Importance of Being Earnest appears to overrun Stoppard's play, and the shenanigans onstage come to resemble more and more that Wilde work. That the play emerges out of the older Henry Carr's muddled memory further serves to pepper this Austin Playhouse production with ample opportunity to touch the comic nerve.
Now, the trouble with Stoppard, genius playwright though he is, is that he does go on. And on and on and on. Long speeches -- and there are many here -- are oratorical tours de force, densely packed with wordplay and historical analogies and literary quips and quirks and so many subtle references that a postdoctoral student tucked away in a dank European library might strive for years to uncover all the nuances and intricacies in just one. It's smart stuff to read, but it can get bogged down onstage -- and does from time to time. A lack of musicality in the production -- of finding the right movement in the language -- tends to drag out scenes that might prove wildly (Wilde-ly?) hilarious otherwise. Director Don Toner might have considered conducting the play, to ensure that its oratorical rhythms provided as much musicality in action as on the page.
Still, much credit to the cast -- and especially David Stahl -- who are equal to the intellectual challenges of Stoppard's script and appear to be having a fine time playing with it. Stahl plays Carr, that minor figure in the British consulate in Zurich, but to his addled old memory, the real power behind that institution. In one extraordinary long speech early in the play, Stahl, as the older Carr, runs and reruns the events as he remembers and misremembers them. Partly doddering, partly keen, Stahl works the text in that gorgeous voice of his to find the humor within. As Tzara, Ben Wolfe is equally adept with the straight-ahead comedy of Stoppard's un-Earnest lines as he is at the more Wilde material. Gray Haddock makes for a dapper if devious deadbeat Joyce, and Michael Hankin is stoic as Lenin, pounding revolutionary zeal while inadvertently playing up the historical irony of mismatched Marxism. Ripped from the Earnest script are two fine young ladies -- Gwendolen, who takes notes for Joyce, and Cecily, the Zurich librarian -- with Hallie Martin shining as the former, and Lara Toner smartly running the gamut from shushing fuddy-duddy to brash striptease dancer as the latter. The tea scene between the two ladies -- again, right out of Earnest -- is one of the production's best, as is the silliness between Toner and Stahl when they hide behind Cecily's librarian kiosk while Things of Import and Intrigue occur around them. Margaret Hoard is simple and focused as Lenin's wife Nadya, and Michael Stuart is brilliantly subtle as butler Bennett, a role that is poetic justice for an actor who has probably played those butler characters in Earnest more times than even he can recall.
The Austin Playhouse should be applauded for choosing such a dense and challenging work; certainly the audience accorded the troupe its appreciation on opening night. As the cast settles into the run, look for the production to find its rhythm and its fine ensemble to serve Stoppard's intellectual tea cakes in earnest.