About 45 minutes before the curtain rises on each performance of the plays this season at the McCarter Theater, the audience is offered a 20-minute discussion of that night’s show. In the case of “Travesties,” which goes into previews on Tuesday, March 13, and opens on Friday, March 16, this isn’t a bad idea at all. Widely regarded as one of Tom Stoppard’s more demanding — if funniest — plays, “Travesties” certainly requires its audience’s close attention. But it isn’t nearly as daunting as it might seem at first.
The premise of “Travesties” has James Joyce, Lenin, and one of founders of the Dada movement, Tristan Tzara, crossing paths when all three were living in Zurich, Switzerland, during World War I. Whether they did meet is immaterial; in Tom Stoppard’s world, not only did the characters intersect, but so did their styles.
The linchpin of the play is Henry Carr, a minor British consul official, who actually did know at least some of the others, and, in fact, appeared as Algernon in a production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” staged by Joyce, in part, at least, because Carr already had the wardrobe for the role. They found themselves in court over money and alleged slander, when Carr ended up as a disagreeable minor character in Joyce’s masterpiece “Ulysses,” the novel he was writing at the time.
The play veers back and forth in time — somewhat like Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” — as Old Carr tries to remember what Young Carr really experienced. Stoppard says in his stage directions “(most of the play) is under the erratic control of Old Carr’s memory, which is not notably reliable.” As is typical of Stoppard, it is as verbally clever as anything ever written, and the dialogue whirls around, sometimes Joycean, most often Wildesque, occasionally delving into Dada. It even stops, at the beginning of Act II, for a treatise into Lenin’s place in Russian history. This may all sound like a Monty Python sketch (remember when Lenin, Karl Marx, and Mao Zedong all appeared on a game show, vying for a beautiful lounge suite?) but there’s a lot more going on than just laughs.
Sam Buntrock, the director of the McCarter production, says, “It’s the story of a man in his 80s trying to remember what happened in 1917, and the futility of that is at the heart of the play. He’s totally not remembering it accurately. He’s a man who was a spectator in a location surrounded by a number of the great figures of history.
“There was no idea that this strange Irishman was writing the greatest novel of his time, or that Lenin would come to mean what he did, or that modern art, inspired by Dadaism, would be this perpetuating force. So it’s like the guy who didn’t sign the Beatles, remembering them at the end of his life. It must be very hard to remove what they became. Here’s this old man, Carr, trying to remember what happened in 1917, and he can’t help but apply all the things that came after it. He’s remembering it wrong.”
“Travesties” was first produced in 1974 in London. In 1976 it won Broadway’s Tony Award for Best Play. Despite that, it is rarely revived, and is generally regarded as one of the most challenging plays to mount, as Buntrock acknowledges in an interview posted on McCarter’s website. But Buntrock, in a more recent interview during a break from rehearsal, has changed his mind.
“It’s a stylistic challenge,” he says. “It requires actors of great verbal ability, with an ability to unlock the language, and comedic skills unlike any other, because it’s a farce and a play of ideas as well as being a physical comedy. So it’s very particular in its requirements of both performers and audiences. Once you start to perform it, it’s clear as day. On the page, it’s very hard to read, but once you start playing it, it’s like lightning. All the information that the audience is required to know, to understand, is in the play, and the way he delivers the information is so funny and brilliant. So I will actually now correct [his earlier statement]: I think it’s rarely produced because you read it on the page, and you haven’t a clue what’s going on.”
Buntrock, who is also the resident director of McCarter, has assembled an eclectic cast that is well-versed in farce and verbal linguistics. James Urbaniak, who plays Henry Carr, is a veteran of avant-garde theater and independent film, and starred in the original New York production of Will Eno’s one-actor show, the Pulitzer Prize nominee “Thom Pain (based on nothing).”
Christian Coulson, who plays Tristan Tzara, is an accomplished stage performer best known to American audiences as the young Voldemort in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” Fred Arsenault, who portrays James Joyce, has performed on Broadway and with the Blue Man Group. Sara Topham, the Canadian-born child of English parents, is fresh from the Broadway revival of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and can switch from a North American accent to an English inflection at the drop of an “h.” And Everett Quinton is a veteran of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company.
Just as Stoppard’s first great success, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” took Hamlet as its jumping off point, Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a central theme in “Travesties.” The two main female characters are named for “Earnest’s” ingenues, Gwendolyn and Cecily, and the dialogue, at one point, is a wild parody of Wilde. Buntrock cites critic Kenneth Tynan’s 1977 quote from Stoppard, “‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is important, but it says nothing about anything.”
“But he (Stoppard) has taken that style and used it to discuss art and politics and literature and the meaning of the artist in the modern world,” Buntrock says.
In the past Stoppard’s critics have carped that he isn’t political enough, and some have taken this play as his answer to those complaints.
"Possibly,” says Buntrock. “I think this is more about art than it is about politics; however, it’s interesting what happens in the second act, when the politics of the play takes over for a time. But I don’t believe he thinks for a moment that art’s place is to solve the politics of our time. This is the antithesis of that: it’s very political, but I’ve been surprised working on it how personal it is.”
Buntrock, 36, has a history of breathing new life into difficult theater pieces. He directed the first West End revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” and received a Tony nomination when the show transferred to Broadway. He also directed the first London revival of Sondheim’s “Assassins” and the current European tour of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” He credits his previous career as an animator for giving him a unique perspective on live theater.
“I have a very strong visual eye,” he says. “Text is first to most directors, but my first impulse is always a visual impulse. My father was an art director, so I think I inherited that, and I think I can drive designers somewhat crazy by being so visually oriented. My mother was a journalist, so I’m blessed by having both sides of the brain.
“I’m becoming more and more aware that I can’t just do something for the sake of doing something; I have to be in love with the project. I am increasingly drawn to plays that are more theatrical than dramatic, and I make the difference this way: The dramatic is the depiction of a story in a naturalistic way, and the actors have to find their way through lines of characters. The theatrical uses everything at its disposal to tell a story. By the nature of that, it’s non-naturalistic, more stylistic, and that’s so much more fun to do. I sometimes feel that with naturalistic plays they might as well be on television or film. As with something like ‘Travesties,’ it wouldn’t work in any other medium. It relies on its theatricality.”
And, he is quick to remind theatergoers, “This play is a farce — there are lots of slamming doors. This play is a physical comedy. Stoppard said himself that he intended to find out what happened when a farce and a play of ideas share the stage with each other. His great skill is opening ideas and making you feel like you’re in the middle of the idea. But it’s not like you’re going to have to pass an exam to be able to buy a ticket. It’s so theatrical and so much fun.
“For me, the perfect evening in the theater (is): I laugh, I cry, and I feel taller than I did when I went in. With this play, you’re definitely going to come out feeling taller.”
“Travesties,” McCarter Theater (Matthews), 91 University Place, Princeton. Previews Tuesday through Thursday, March 13 to 15; opening night, Friday, March 16; closes Sunday, April 1. Tom Stoppard’s comedy set in Zurich, 1917. Directed by Sam Buntrock. $20 to $60. Attend a pre-show talk 45 minutes before each performance. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.