Thursday, April 17, 2008

Talkin' bout a revolution

Nigel Gore and Molly Schreiber debate the Travesties of modernism.

Hindsight may be 20/20, but you'd have to have been as blind as James Joyce not to have seen that Zurich in 1916 was the place to be. Nestled in the lap of Swiss neutrality as the belle epoque blew up around it, Zurich was crowded with the likes of Kandinsky, Klee, de Chirico, Ernst, Arp, and, of course Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and Vladimir Lenin - whose (hypothetically) crossed paths form the crux of Travesties, Tom Stoppard's dazzling meditation on, and cross-examination of, modernism.

For make no mistake, Zurich's tiny teapot would pour a cultural tempest on the world as "the war to end all wars" wound down. Lenin would escape via sealed train to the Finland Station in 1917; Joyce would begin to unleash his über-Bildungsroman, Ulysses, in 1918; and Tristan Tzara, the founder of "Dada," would - well, actually Zurich proved to be his finest hour, but his anarchic manifesti manifested themselves for years via his surrealist comrades (indeed, he may, in the end, cast the longest cultural shadow of this trio).

But Stoppard engages these titans much as he did Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead - by sending amongst them a nobody, albeit an actual nobody, named Henry Carr, a minor official who starred in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest at a theatre whose manager was none other than Joyce (at left, in a photo taken in Zurich). The two sparred over money, with Carr suing Joyce, and Joyce counter-suing Carr (tellingly, the affair was over a pair of pants) - and Tzara and Lenin were in the neighborhood, after all, so Stoppard mixes all of them up in a fantasia based in the loosey-goosiest of fashions on Earnest, as it's re-enacted in flashback via the addled brain of the now-ancient Carr.

If this all sounds a bit Oxbridge-precious, well - perhaps it is; but it's dazzlingly Oxbridge-precious, because Stoppard is so lavishly witty, and his erudition so deep and yet worn so lightly. (Who else could have Lenin intone, "To lose one revolution may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness"?) What's more, Stoppard darts easily from the role of artiste to philistine: Carr may be a stuffed shirt and a prig, but he gives as good as he gets, and we can sense his outrage is a cover for the author's own skepticism.

For after all, even the title of Travesties can be taken any number of ways - is Stoppard ridiculing the artists he has in his sights, or instead only revelling in their work as the travesties they intended, and the Henry Carrs of the world insisted they were? Remember even Forster thought Ulysses was an attempt "to smear shit on the universe," (it is a kind of highbrow burlesque), Tzara endured no end of abuse, and Lenin (at right, on his arrival in Finland) twisted Marxism so far from its foundations as to all but parody it - and as for its practical effect on the world, well . . . that's both a travesty and a tragedy. Even the use of Earnest is itself a deep joke; after all, Wilde's comedy is a weirdly rarefied satire of Tory morals - precisely the worldview that modernism ridiculed and attempted to reform. To subject modernism itself to the same tropes - well, let's just say some might regard that as a tragedy. Or a travesty. Whatever - as in whatever you make of the wreckage of modernism's reformist ideals, it's not unlike the flickering chaos of Henry Carr's brain.

At any rate, under the direction of Diego Arciniegas, Stoppard's hall of intellectual mirrors is kept merrily spinning, and even if the cast isn't dazzling enough to disguise the lack of momentum in his ad hoc script, they put over the electrifying play of his ideas. (Once again we find the theatre scene's real intellectual life being sustained by its small companies rather than its large ones.) Of the central triumvirate, I was most taken with the Tzara of Alejandro Simoes, whose energy is consistently charming, even if he channels the Marx Brothers' anarchy-lite more than the darker fatalism of Tzara (whose pseudonym roughly translates as "sad country"). But I found Gabriel Kuttner's Lenin (another pseudonym, btw; his given name was Vladimir Ulyanov) a bit too placid, and Derry Woodhouse's Joyce not nearly testy or eccentric enough. And as senile ringmaster Carr, Nigel Gore tended to roar rather than explore the down-and-out loose ends of his character's senescence. There's bright work around the edges of the production, though: Lynn Guerra and Molly Schreiber ably chirp their way through the roles of Carr's Wildean factota, Gwendolen and Cecily (even when they're bopping about like mechanical dolls, or stripping á la some slightly sexist Monty Python sketch). Perhaps my favorite performance, however, came from Lorna Noguiera as Lenin's wife Nadya, whose best lines, of course, go "Da . . . da . . . da, da, da!" (Or yes I said yes, for you Joyceans.) The voice of modernity indeed.

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