Lenin, Joyce and the Dadaists in Zurich Together in 1917 in the at Times Brilliant and at Times Very Confusing "Travesties"
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go to see the revival of Tom Stoppard’s comedy Travesties in Princeton, which opened Sunday, be prepared for a good forty-five minute wait in the first act before anything you see makes the slightest bit of sense. Hang in there, though, because this play about the fictional meetings between novelist James Joyce, revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and the anti-war, pro-art Dada founder Tristan Tzara gets a lot better as it rambles on through its menagerie of comedy, drama, poems, rhymes, songs and even a semi-striptease by a prim and proper librarian.
The play is a marvelous historical excursion back to Zurich during World War I, where these three people all lived, for a while, and may or may have not known Henry Carr, the aging narrator of the very fictional play. Joyce was in town to write the final version of his epic book Ulysses. Lenin was writing his own book, and spending most of his time at the local public Alstadt library, where everyone saw him as a kindly, quiet middle-age man, and not the fiery revolutionary who changed the world. Tzara was, as always, bouncing around Europe and landed in Zurich. Stoppard, in his sometimes droll and sometimes biting wit, tells the story of their lives in the play; the audience learns much about the history of the men and the era.
It is a muddied road to travel, though. The play begins with Tzara and Carr engaged in perfectly useless debate about art and artists. Carr argues on his feet and Tzara argues from whatever piece of furniture he has leaped on. This drags on for forty five minutes, without any let up. The audience starts to slumber.
Then, suddenly, the effervescent Carr is talked into playing Algernon Moncrieff in a single performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and the story changes entirely. It is suddenly full of engaging encounters, sharp wit and marvelously delightful characters. Wilde’s play is mentioned quite a bit in Travesties. The two main women in the play, Cecily and Gwendolyn, are named after two women in The Importance of Being Earnest (the connection between the two plays is so great that some repertory theaters run them one night after another). From there on, with some gaps, Travesties is a brilliant romp through World War I and the Russian Revolution, as told from a living room in Switzerland in 1974.
The play is at times magical and at times boring, often wonderful and sometimes sheer drudgery. It soars at some points and drags at others.
Those who hang in there, though, especially those is search of history, are rewarded. Director Sam Buntrock has done a stellar job of keeping the action moving and working with his actors to produce a theatrical and historical carnival. He throws the play at you from every possible angle, physical and intellectual, until you are drained from watching it.
The performers give admirable performances and you wonder how on earth they do it in a nearly three-hour play in which they work hard just about every minute. James Urbaniak is brilliant as Henry Carr, a well-educated British diplomat, who carries the action. Carr wants to be the friend and counsel to the three historical figures, who sometimes let him and sometimes denounce him. Urbaniak argues, cajoles, jokes, pirouettes and dances his way through the play. He is matched, stride for stride, by Christian Coulson as Tzara, the cuckoo Dada leader. You wonder whether Tzara knows what he is doing and throughout the evening Coulson keeps him spinning about the stage, the plot wrapped tightly around him. Demosthenes Chrysan plays the frumpy Lenin, who finds out that the Russian Revolution has started in the second act. He leaves hurriedly for St. Petersburg. Carr shrugs. “I knew Lenin when he was Lenin, not Lenin,” he jokes, adding that Lenin was a nice guy whose only fault was his politics.
Fred Arsenault is an electrifying James Joyce, who goes head to head with Tzara in zany Dada dialects and befriends Carr. He chugs through the play, his historic book manuscript in hand, as others marvel about Ulysses.
Susannah Flood is a delight as Carr’s sister, who falls for Tzara, and Sara Topham is lovable as Cecily, the librarian who loves Carr. In the second act, for no reason at all, Cecily does a red hot semi-striptease in the middle of the library a she sings wickedly about the Bolshevik Revolution, cubism and expressionism. Now, if cubism doesn’t turn you on, what will?
Others in the cast are Luisa Sturs as Nadya, Lenin’s wife, and Everett Quinton as Bennett, the butler.
You do learn a lot of history, especially about the Russian Revolution. Stoppard chronicles it, and Lenin’s departure for St. Petersburg, every day and every hour (including the complicated story of how Lenin obtained papers to travel through Germany to Russia). He uses several parts of Lenin’s more famous speeches and has others give further backdrop to the Bolshevik uprising. There is a majestic scene in which Lenin stands on a balcony, Communist red flags waving behind him, the revolution’s national anthem flooding the theater, and gives a rousing speech.
There is much in the play about the artistic Dadaists, although you understand them as well at the end as you did at the beginning. The works of Joyce, and his place in literary history, are analyzed rather well (a student could catch the play, take some notes and turn in a term paper).
The play takes place on a handsome, oversized set designed by David Farley. It is a huge, two story, dark wood library with furniture and desks. Different rooms are created in front of the library and the second level of it is used as a balcony. At one point, Carr is sitting in his living room, set within the library, and a lengthy and nearly full sized train roars behind him, stunning the audience.
The problem with Travesties, though, and why it is rarely revived (it debuted in 1974), is that it is too sleepy in the beginning, too confusing at many points and pretty long winded at three hours. You have to think about last night’s television show for forty-five minutes until the pay really gets going, but when it does, it is worth the visit.
And you see the world’s only 1917 cubist librarian stripper, too.
PRODUCTION; Producer: McCarter Theater. Sets and costumes: David Farley, lighting: David Weiner, Sound: Fitz Patton. Composer: David Shire. The play is directed by Sam Buntrock.
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