Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: 'Travesties'

At Princeton's McCarter Theatre, concrete evidence of Tom Stoppard's sprawling intelligence. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Review: 'Travesties'

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In McCarter Theatre's "Travesties": (from left) Sara Topham, James Urbaniak (in chair), Susannah Flood and Fred Arsenault. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

By Howard Shapiro

There’s enough meat in Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play Travesties for several feasts, and enough allusions to literature and history to keep you happily poking around in library shelves for days.

But a superior production of Travesties — and the one that opened Friday at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre under Sam Buntrock’s direction is just that — lets the play speak for itself. It’s a no-holds-barred telling of Stoppard’s Tony winner, an outrageously bold combination of stories and situations that illuminates them by very way it confuses them.

There’s no confusion, though, in the way Buntrock stages Travesties, right down to a second-half scene in which two women in Stoppard's play turn into Gwendolyn and Cecily, from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, in a conversation modeled closely on a scene in that play — but with a clear (and rhymed) footing in this one. The tea-time scene is staged for all it’s worth as a travesty, the name used for what amounted to Victorian burlesque, with David Shire’s original happy-go-lucky music backing the wordplay.

This Travesties is full of wonderful little moments — I won’t give them away by elaborating. They heighten the jaw-dropping gall of Stoppard’s script, a recklessly intelligent theatrical stew whose ingredients include World War I, Lenin and his wife, Oscar Wilde’s aforementioned play, James Joyce and Ulysses, Tristan Tzara (the poet instrumental in the Dada movement that foreswore accepted conventions), and a minor diplomat  from Britain.

That last character is Henry Carr, also a real historical figure. Stoppard builds Travesties with him at the center, taking a simple fact about Carr’s life — that he once played a role in The Importance of Being Earnest at a little theater at which James Joyce was a front-office figure — and enlarging it to build a richly amusing  plot. The story comes alive in 1917 Zurich, but is being  told by an elderly, befuddled Carr more than a half-century later.

Consider Stoppard’s construct — it has so many shapes and dimensions that it could be an ice crystal — and you’ll understand that it’s a monumental task to bring together and make accessible. But not for James Urbaniak (as Henry Carr), Christian Coulson (Tzara), Fred Arsenault (Joyce), Demosthenes Chrysan (Lenin), Lusia Strus (Lenin’s wife, Nadya) — and Susannah Flood and Sara Topham as Gwendolyn and Cecily. Everett Quinton, as excellent as all the rest, is a butler who reports the news of the war as the British diplomat, Carr, sits unaffected and above it all, munching on crisps.

David Farley’s period costumes and impressive, huge sets go for broke — like the production itself. And, of course, like Stoppard.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,

Travesties: Playing at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, N.J., through April 1. Tickets: $20-$60. Information: 609-258-2787 or  

About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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