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
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

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, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
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Travesties: Playing at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, N.J., through April 1. Tickets: $20-$60. Information: 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.  

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