by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Jac Alder
Set Design - Jac Alder
Lighting Design - Paul Arnold
Costume Design - Bruce R. Coleman
Sound Design - Richard Frohlich
Jakie Cabe - Henry Carr
David Dixon - James Joyce
Chad Peterson - Tristan Tzara
Jackie L. Kemp - Vladimir Lenin
Tricia Ponsford - Gwendolen
Maribeth Ayers - Cecily
Greg Forshay - Bennett
Merri Brewer - Nadya
Reviewed Performance 2/14/2011
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Art and politics, politics and art. How these two ever became such intertwined bedfellows is not beyond my comprehension but beyond why it was ever necessary in the first place. In our own country, back more years than I know, government had its hand in which way art should or could be led. The Depression Era WPA projects come to mind and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) continues its attempts to assist art in all its forms as the funding pie gets sliced thinner and thinner with each new administration.
Tom Stoppard addressed questions on the marriage of art and politics in his farcical play, Travesties, now playing at Theatre 3. In a most innovative turn, Stoppard chose real people from the art, political and military world and discussed whether there should be a relationship between the three.
Stoppard discovered that in 1917, during World War I, modernist writer James Joyce, Communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, Dadaist creator Tristan Tzara, and a minor British official, Henry Carr, were all living in Zurich, having removed themselves to war neutral Switzerland. Having more free speech space to pontificate their individual points of view, the first three became profound influences on the world. Henry Carr wrote his memoirs of that time and his insistence on having met Lenin, Joyce and Tzara. It's through Carr's muddled memory that Stoppard took great delight in spinning a comical play, parodying the three main character's philosophies.
In a series of surrealistic scenes, the elderly Carr unreliably recalled and reminisced on his famous encounters. However, as Carr's recollections started to wander off course, his mind, the clock and the characters rewound in an attempt to get it all correct. Stoppard replayed scenes sometimes three and four times, each with a different perspective and outcome. Placing another ingredient in the surrealistic soup, Stoppard mixed characters and situations from The Importance of Being Earnest to further accentuate the maze of Carr's memory and to explore his own theories on art and war (Carr actually performed in Oscar Wilde's play while in Zurich with Joyce as the theatre's manager).
Theatre 3's production, under the direction of Jac Alder, also fully explored the realms of artistic expression. From the set to costumes, sound and lighting, each designer had fun playing within Carr's head and the result was like one of Salvador Dali's films. The most obvious parody was a part of the set design, also by Jac Alder. When one thinks Switzerland, one might think clocks and, with bold tongue in cheek, Alder placed a gigantic coo-coo clock, complete with huge leaves, pine cones and owls, over the doors to Carr's apartment room, making each person who entered the coo-coo bird.
The slightly demonic, multi-colored clock face's hands ran counterclockwise to reset itself for each of Carr's warped recollections. The rest of the apartment was concise and Swiss simplistic ? a love seat, a table, a writing desk, chair, and piano, all in warm woods. On the opposite side of the in-the-round stage was Zurich's public library, also very concise and tidy with small tables and chairs and the librarian's counter. A metal spiral staircase led to the second floor books which, in surrealistic fashion, were floating in air by strings.
Paul Arnold's lighting design was fairly simple and I liked how he spot lit some of the characters during certain moments, darkening all else, reminding me of those telescopic fade outs seen on cartoons. Adding yet another layer of dada to Travesties, sound designer Richard Frohlich used distorted ticks and tocks and that whirring sound of going backwards. Light polka music entertained us through the intermission and uplifting Russian anthems added patriotic spark to Lenin's speeches.
For the men's costumes, designer Bruce R. Coleman kept it traditional. Carr wore lightly colored linen with golden silk vest, then transformed to elderly Carr with the addition of silk robe, cap and wig. Tzara was suited a bit more free form with hat and monocle and both wore spats. Joyce was a mix of mismatched coat and pants with rumpled hat and hair. Lenin's wife, Nadya, was cinched in dark, uncomplicated Russian garb and Bennett, Carr's butler, was gloved and tuxedoed. It was with the characters of Gwendolen and Cecily (yes, from The Importance of Being Earnest and Carr's brain) where Mr. Coleman's true talent shone in the art of the elegantly overdone. Cecily, as the reference librarian and Gwendolen, as Carr's sister, were clad in layer upon layer of plaid fabric, poufy half aprons, tassels, lace bibs and big bowed back sides ? like a smorgasbord of Swiss misses on acid.
Alder cast four exceptional actors to portray the main characters and, though none of us were around in 1917 to know these men, each actor took the personification of Lenin, Joyce, Tzara and Carr and brought them to life as we would imagine them to be. Jakie Cabe, as both 1917 and 1970 Carr, took a pinch of British straight lace, a dash of upper class snobbery and boredom and added the exuberance of mixing with these interesting men with a boyish glee. Cabe had a light-hearted presence on stage and an agile physicality which proved useful, especially when he had to retrace his steps and motions backwards again and again.
David Dixon was boisterous, blustery, bespectacled and unkempt as you'd think writer Joyce would have been. Jackie L. Kemp was the epitome of Lenin both in disposition and appearance. His Russian accent was respectable as were Cabe's British and Dixon's Irish. I couldn't tell if Chad Peterson's Romanian accent was correct as, to my ear, it slid into French from time to time. What I liked was Peterson's vibrancy, the joie de vivre he gave to Tzara and the devil may care attitude of a true Dadaist.
Merri Brewer, as Nadya, played the proud Russian comrade with defiant crispness but her accent was all over the place, sometimes heading to Sweden and then to New Jersey. Greg Forshay's Bennett, while staying the very proper butler, had a quick step, mischievous eye and Mona Lisa smirk that reminded us butlers always know more of what's going on than their employers. Sweet and demure on the outside, steadfast and determined on the inside, Tricia Ponsford's Gwendolen was joyous and intelligent, and she never relied on the dumb blonde personality that character could easily have become.
What a powerhouse actress Maribeth Ayers was. Full of self-confidence and sensuality, her Cecily bowled Carr over. Both Punsford and Ayers developed their comic ability to a finely-tuned duet, especially during a particularly funny, vaudeville sketch that received applause at the end.
Theatre 3's production was a grand night of theatre but I must say Travesties might not have been everyone's cup of tea or bowl of borscht. Stoppard is a clever and highly intelligent playwright. Through all the farce, comic wordplay and plot twists, he used parts of history and bits of Marxism, Dadaism and modernism to discuss the artist's role in all of it. He asked, no demanded, the audience to pay attention and not sit back idly.
While fantastical and hilarious, it was a play to wonder where art would find its place in our current time, with violent protests, shifting politics and unending wars. We've already lost much governmental art funding and many schools no longer have arts programs. The question offered was this. Does politics have a place or a say in helping to keep the arts alive? And, if it doesn't have a place and is unaccepted, would its dismissal be the biggest travesty of all?
Theatre 3, 2800 Routh Street, Dallas, TX 75201
Plays through March 12th
Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm and again at 8pm.
Special "Wallet Watcher" performance on Sunday, March 6th at 7:30pm, a "Hooky Matinee" performance on Wednesday, March 9th at 2:30 pm and a matinee performance on Saturday, March 12th at 2:30 pm.
For tickets and information, call 214-871-3300 or go to www.theatre3dallas.com