Sunday, January 28, 2007

Travesties - Seattle Public Theater

Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse
Runs Through February 11, 2007
Tickets and Information

What is art? What is an artist? And what does it mean to be an artist in wartime? Tom Stoppard’s wittily profound play Travesties tackles this pertinent question through the somewhat confused memories of Henry Carr, an elderly man who served as a British government official in Zurich, Switzerland in 1917. His memories of the political and historical events of that time, however, are irrevocably intermixed with his memories of playing “the other one” (that is, Algy), in Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Ernest.

Cecily and Gwendolen appear of course, a little different from their roles in Wilde; Gwendolen is Henry’s sister, and is helping James Joyce, the limerick writer from Dublin, compose his masterpiece. Cecily is the communist librarian at the Zurich library, intent on assisting Lenin with his own research. Henry’s friend Tristan Tzara, the Dadaist, is courting Gwendolen, though pretending to be his older brother Jack when at the library, because Lenin hates Dada. Henry, in disguise as “Jack’s” younger brother Tristan, attempts to seduce Cecily into giving up political secrets on Lenin. The plot of Ernest, clearly, is used liberally, but always with Stoppard’s own twist, that adds layers of meaning. Shakespeare is quoted and alluded to with abandon, as is Dada, Marx, Joyce, and postmodern theory, to name just a few.

It is a complex play, not only for the language and ideas, but for the impeccable timing needed, both onstage and off, to make it work. Although Seattle Public Theater is small, it is always up to the task of challenging theater, and this is no exception. The technical aspects of the play need to support the script faultlessly, and they do. Sean P. Begley’s colorful light design, and Evan Middlesworth’s sound design and composition, play into the production exactly as they should—to support and help tell the story. (A kudos should also be thrown in for the people who run the lights and sound during the shows, who are a vital part of it.) Pete Rush’s costume design and Richard Lorig’s set design are not too detailed, but are evocative (to the right extent; too much detail would overwhelm in such a small space).

The actors are a talented group, every one of them throwing themselves into the play with gusto under Susanna Wilson’s capable and sharp direction. Gavin Cummins, as Henry Carr, leads the audience through the play as a bumbling but loveable character, the perfect foil for the rest of the odd group. Cecily (Tracy Repep) and Gwendolen (Hana Lass), particularly during the play’s oddly fitting musical number (parodying Ernest’s tea scene), create full, crisply acted characters; and Repep’s commitment to her character shows during Cecily’s striptease in the library, to a recitation of Marxist ideals—it could easily become ludicrous, but Repep keeps it within the admittedly hilarious bounds of the play. Frank Lawler as Tristan Tzara and Jon Lutyens as James Joyce argue constantly about the nature of art—from completely different positions, but so convincingly that one wants to believe both. Therese Diekhans, as Lenin’s wife Nadya, lightens up Dennis Kleinsmith’s stern but impassioned Lenin. Kleinsmith also plays Carr’s butler Bennett, a completely different character—crisp, scornful, and hilarious, a perfect parody of, and homage to, every all-too-knowing butler in English literature.

Ultimately it is a play about the veracity of memory (and whether it matters); about what things mean, and whether we, using language, can change that meaning; and about the place of the artist in the world. To get full enjoyment out of the evening you may want to not only brush up on your Shakespeare, but also your Wilde, and possibly your World War One history. Stoppard writes very witty plays for highly literate people; he demands attention and awareness from an audience, but if you give that attention, you will be amply rewarded with a cleverly written and admirably acted play.

Review by Lia Morgan

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