Chicago Theater Review: TRAVESTIES (Remy Bumppo at Greenhouse Theater Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 31, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Imagine history as a roller coaster–more specifically, Oscar Wide’s masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest transmogrified into cerebral vaudeville. Erupting for nearly three hours of whimsical exuberance, Tom Stoppard’s 1974 Travesties (here enhanced with later rewrites) is a deliberately dazzling, ostentatiously intellectual tour de talk. Its entire comic apparatus is built on one curious fact: In the pivotal year of 1917 three titans of politics, art and literature–Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin (then Ulyanov); Tristan Tzara, Romanian founder of the Dadaist anti-art movement; and Irish luminary James Joyce, soon to write Ulysses–lived in the neutral city of Zürich.


So did an obscure British consular official named Henry Carr who, vaguely mixing with greatness, played the feature role of Algernon Moncrief in a very forgettable wartime production of Wilde’s comedy. (The troupe was called the English Company and expatriate Joyce was the business manager.) Significantly, Carr later memorialized the notables he knew–or pretended to: His only real connection was to sue Joyce for damaged trousers and then slander. (Each won a different case, creating a pointless stalemate.)


Upon this thin but curious coincidence Stoppard conjures up a pell-mell fantasia that both reflects and mocks the older Carr’s fractured memoirs. Clumsily misremembering and easily distracted, this upper class twit lurches from exposition and editorials to his own crack-brained version of Wilde’s play (which it’s well to know well). As a script, Travesties, as the name implies, is a hodgepodge of literary allusions, paradoxes and parodies (besides Wilde, there are spoofs of Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan, World War I ballads, limericks galore, even the signature song of ancient vaudevillians Gallagher and Shean). As a production, it’s a daunting meditation on the volatile intersection of obscurity and destiny, the power of art to improve on or make sense of life, the public and private sources of revolution, and the tricks and tests of making memories. You’ll laugh too.


Potentially Travesties is a runaway train. The stopwatch show requires consummate traffic contr0l, wizard timing, and directorial discipline, as much as patient attention from an awestruck audience. Director Nick Sandys’ cunningly correct Remy Bumppo revival maintains perfect pitch and tempo throughout, going over the top (a proper World War I reference) only when authorized. Fast and furious, it’s also fun. But, as cited before, Travesties rewards as much as requires a thorough familiarity with every plot twist and witty turn in Wilde’s wicked work. (You could call Stoppard’s confection The Importance of Knowing Earnest.)

1_Jeff+Cummings+(533x800)Eight actors, marshaled like a military operation, embrace Stoppard’s scintillating mélange of bravura feats and cascades of indulgent rhetoric, romping through his merry mischief of history as farce. Jeff Cummings gives his duffer Carr (young and old) the right dithering bluster, as well as snooty British condescension and invincible ignorance. Greg Matthew Anderson (who has himself done splendid work in Wilde’s concoction) transforms the fulminating Tzara into a smooth operator, an epicene Jack Worthing for Carr’s splenetic Algernon. Bilious with blarney and an eye patch, James Houton’s James Joyce sputters and fumes at Carr’s officious assurance and tonsorial arrogance. (A wounded veteran, Carr is also an unapologetic booster for the war that didn’t end all wars.)  Finally, Keith Neagle nails Lenin as, aided by Jodi Kingsley as his paramour Nadya, he plots his escape to the Finland Station in St. Petersburg. (There he will take charge of the Russian Revolution, exterminating the moderate Mensheviks and establishing a Soviet workers’ paradise complete with gulags.)


Abundant support and contagious delight come from Meg Warner’s sprightly Cecily, Kelsey Brennan’s mannered Gwendolyn, and Scott Olson as Bennett, Carr’s arch manservant and a stunning expert on dialectical materialism. They pounce on their caricatures like a cat on a chipmunk. Joe Schermoly’s all-purpose parlor and Rachel Lambert’s self-satirizing costumes create the perfect context for comic confusion.


By its none-too-early end Travesties will exhaust the crowd as much as the players. After taking in most of these 50,000 words, you may want to plant a flag in the lobby–or just enjoy the startling sound of silence.


photos by Johnny Knight

Remy Bumppo
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Thurs – Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2:30
plus select Wednesdays and matinees
scheduled to end on May 3, 2015
for tickets, call 773.404.7336 or visit

for more info on Chicago Theater, visit

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