San Diego Theater Review: TRAVESTIES (Cygnet)

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by Tony Frankel on October 14, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Tom Stoppard’s brilliant Travesties (1974) is literate and fiercely crafted, tackling ideas of love, wit, politics, art, theater, literature, intellectualism and whatever else flows its way through Stoppard’s cosmic inquisitiveness. The plot, if you can call it that, is complex and nonlinear. World War I veteran Henry Carr reminisces with Maggie Carney, Manny Fernandesfailing memory about Zürich in 1917, and his dealings with James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and Vladimir Lenin, all of whom were living in Zürich at that time.

Romance, absurdism, farce and time-bending contrivances abound in this nearly three-hour illogical construct, which is dense with references to art and philosophy. As such, it is easy for one’s mind to stray watching the surrealistic mixture of zaniness and literary lampooning (this pastiche play mimics in assembly the abstract collages of Dadaists). Because Stoppard never gives us an easy “in” into his world, and references everything from Dadaism and Ulysses to the Russian Revolution, a theater company has to be on its best game to pull it off. Cygnet Theater, fresh off the heels of the most astounding production of Company that I have ever seen, does so magnificently. Because of the convoluted goings on, it is the interaction of the characters which sells the play, and director Sean Murray’s game cast ensures a fast-paced and surprisingly funny production.

Jacque Wilke, Jordan Miller, Patrick McBrideThe characters are not just based on the great minds assembled in Zürich during The War to End All Wars: Characters from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest interact with them (Cygnet is presenting Earnest in rep with Travesties utilizing the same actors). Why? The real-life Henry Carr was an amateur actor who appeared in Earnest in Zürich with The English Players, an acting troupe formed by James Joyce (a nasty lawsuit and countersuit between the two led to Carr’s immortalization in Ulysses as Private Carr, an obnoxious, besotted soldier—you can’t make this stuff up).

Manny Fernandes, Jordan Miller, Patrick McBride, Brian MackeyJordan Miller plays both the younger and older Carr, whose long-winded ramblings, as seen through his amusingly fragmented wit, are alternately mirthful and poignant. Miller’s enchanting take on the younger Carr captures both the effeminate gadfly and supercilious over-privileged Brit associated with Wildean youth. I would have preferred the elder Carr to be more grounded in the realities of old age (Miller comes off like an actor playing an actor playing a mature Carr), but he is delightful nonetheless.

Rachael VanWormer, David Cochran Heath, Jacque WilkeThe entire cast excels with the delicious verbal jousting. As Carr’s manservant, Bennett, David Cochran Heath trippingly proffers the news events of the day with a perfect blend of drollness and matter-of-fact superiority. Brian Mackey presents his exaggerated Tzara with sincerity and clarity, shining in a scene involving a didactic argument with Carr about the nature of war. The language of high comedy is adeptly sung by Jacque Wilk as Gwedolen and Rachael Vanwormer as Cecily; their music hall ditty based on “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean,” which parodies the tea party in Earnest, is a highlight (how refreshing to have a tune stuck in your head for days after the performance). Manny Fernandes is a dead-ringer for Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin), who offers some delicious insights about art, not just revolution (Lenin believes in the role of art for social purposes such as spreading the word of communism). Maggie Carney plays his no-nonsense wife Nadya and Patrick McBride is a scornful James Joyce, even as he enchants us by spouting limericks with a lyrical Irish brogue.

Jordan Miller, Brian Mackey, Patrick McBrideIn his review of Arcadia (1993), The Observer’s Mike Coveney stated, “There is no one like Tom Stoppard to make you feel both spoilt and inadequate as an audience.” Nothing could be closer to the truth with Travesties: Some patrons will feel goosed by the fiendishly clever shenanigans, while others may be alienated by the deluge of historical allegories and English literary whammies. The only travesty at last Saturday’s matinee was that too many estranged viewers bolted after intermission. Don’t! Those who remained became even more involved, laughing and leaning forward in their seats. I suggest you see The Importance of Being Earnest first, and arrive early to Travesties so you can soak up the program’s indispensable information. Even if your taste is cheese-and-crackers, allow your palate to adapt to Stoppard’s caviar-and-champagne.

photos by Ken Jacques

Cygnet Theatre in Old Town
scheduled to end on October 27, 2013
for tickets, call 619-337-1525 or at

{ 1 comment }

Carolyn Passeneau October 20, 2013 at 11:01 am

Marvelously informative and thoughtful review on a “difficult” play. Thank you so very much.

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