Tuesday, September 1, 2015





By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer


Tom Stoppard’s plays are still the gold standard for brilliance: funnier than Shaw, weightier than Wilde. His 1974 Travesties is a super-smart  super-theatrical tour de force challenging both actors and audiences, and plucky little Plays & Players sometimes meets that challenge and sometimes doesn’t, but it’s well worth a look.

It’s a fact that during The Great War, James Joyce,  Tristan Tzara and Lenin were all living in Zurich, but the intersections of their lives are mainly Stoppard’s inventions. One Henry Carr, a functionary in the British Consulate,  who actually  performed in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest produced by Joyce, becomes  Stoppard’s vehicle. Carr reminisces (with his aging, unreliable memory) about those old days when revolutions—artistic and political—were changing the world, and those recollections appear before us.

As the young Henry Carr (Tim Rinehart) tells the daddy of Dada, Tristan Tzara (Eric Wunsch), “to be an artist at all is like living in Switzerland during a world war. But to be an artist in Zurich in 1917, implies a degree of self-absorption that would have glazed over the eyes of Narcissus.”

The travesties in Travesties are endless: imported from Wilde’s comedy, Cecily (the winning Kristen Norine) and Gwendolyn (Kaki Burns, the weak link in the cast)  confront each other via a Gallagher and Sheen vaudeville bit, while Joyce (Bob Stineman), singing corny Irish turaluraluras,  performs magic tricks. Lenin (Jim Ludovici) speechifies way too much, while his wife ( lovely Cathy Mostek whose Russian sounds authentic)  recalls their lives as they waltz. Dialogue parodies the catechism chapter in Ulysses, and there’s a seduction scene where Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, even chopped into Dadaist pieces, works its charm.

In a small, nearly silent role, Andrew Carroll, as the butler with revolutionary sympathies, is a standout; he seems to be the only one in the cast who understands subtlety, underplaying while everyone else is overplaying. This widespread excess is likely due to director Candace Cihocki who exaggerates everything: voices too loud with too much stage business--leaping and jumping and stamping and high-fiving—occasionally turning this complex intellectual frolic into mere crude burlesque. That the accents—Russian, Romanian, Irish,  British—are  inconsistent doesn’t help either.

The play is made for a proscenium stage, and squashing it into the tiny, oddly shaped space on Plays & Players’ third floor is a struggle. The messy set, designed by Vandy Scoates, makes no visual sense, and its attempts at playfulness, with moving panels and doors, have shoestring written all over them. The costumes (Jill Keys) are, with the exception of Joyce’s mismatched suits, all wrong for the characters. Unlike many plays where little theatres can shine, Travesties is not amateur-friendly.


Plays & Players  Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place. Through June 23. Tickets $20-25. Information: www.playsandplayers.org or 800-595-4TIX


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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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