Never look a cash cow in the mouth. If the folks at Washington Shakespeare Company (WSC) have half the smarts I think they have, they’ll take a cue from the SRO crowds flocking to their wickedly uproarious staging of Travesties and quickly announce that director Michael Comlish will be turned loose on the rest of the Tom Stoppard canon. Anyone attending the current production would surely subscribe on the spot.
For this is the sort of dizzily brain-tickling staging that intellectual farce absolutely requires and rarely gets. Comlish not only keeps the playwright’s ideas ricocheting pretty much nonstop around Clark Street Playhouse, but also makes the evening’s characters bounce and light up as they’re struck by each new notion, almost as if the stage were a giant pinball machine. Nostrils flare, lips quiver, eyebrows take flight along with arms, legs, and sometimes whole bodies. At one point, a character gets so carried away by an argument he’s making that he leaps headlong across a couch and tackles his opponent in a flying half nelson.
All of which makes eminent sense, given the anarchic debate Stoppard is having with himself about the nature and purpose of art. Another playwright might conceivably have noted that Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara all lived in Zurich simultaneously during World War I, but it seems unlikely that anyone but Stoppard would ever engage them in philosophical small talk quite like the dialogue in Travesties. He has composed some scenes entirely of limericks, others of nonsense syllables, and still others of arguments cribbed directly from Shakespeare, Wilde, and Marx (Karl, not Groucho, though from the laughs, you’d never guess). He has also taken unlikely plot elements of Ulysses and The Importance of Being Earnest, thrown them into Tzara’s Dadaist blender and ended up not with soupy sophistry, but with a heady cocktail of ideas.
Drinking deeply from this cocktail (and getting more than a trifle tipsy) is a fast-talking, empty-headed British consular official named Henry Carr, whom Stoppard has invented as an addled MC for the evening. Having evidently been more concerned in 1917 with the crease of his trousers than with the conflagration engulfing Europe, Carr proves a decidedly unreliable witness to historic events. By the time we meet him, he is deep in his dotage and, in David Fendig’s antic portrayal, all his synapses appear to be misfiring. So much so that his chronicle of eventsin which he takes an active part, shedding an old robe and a half-century in one gesturesputters and rewinds, moves by fits and starts, and generally takes the sort of random approach to reality ideal for Stoppard’s brand of cerebral impertinence.
Somehow, though, a coherent debate emerges about cultural imperatives. Carr’s poetic buddy, Tzara (a pixilated Jason Gilbert), is dedicated to creative irrelevance”my art belongs to Dada,” he says while shredding Shakespearean sonnets and pulling their words randomly from hats. Lenin, played with a perpetually perplexed expression by Dom Lonardo, insists that all art should be politically useful; “literature must become party literature,” he barks while trying to keep abreast of revolutionary developments in Czarist Russia. Joyce (an uproariously tart-tongued Christopher Henly) falls somewhere between them, having noted that traditional forms are dissolving and having begun the work of reconstruction on his own terms, gushing torrents of language over Greek myths.
As if all this weren’t intoxicating enough, Stoppard also has Oscar Wilde’s upper-crusty Gwendolyn and Cecily (Jennifer Gerdts and Rhea Seehorn) romping around the play’s perimeter with a proletarian secretary (Brook Butterworth) and a breathtakingly well-informed butler (Andy Rapoport). Class, ideological, and sartorial warfare ensues, with puns flying every which way.
Comlish’s staging is as frenetic and fast-paced as his mounting of Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound for the company two seasons ago, but far more assured in terms of acting and design. Of course, having come up with the spare, iconic setting and witty sound mix himself, he presumably had little trouble making those elements mesh with his overall vision for the production. David Zemmels’ show-bizzy lighting (complete with mirror-ball effects, backlit scrims, and hot red spotlights) and Edu. Bernardino’s Edwardian-by-way-of-music-hall costumes are also apt and amusing.
While many productions skip the lecture on Russian politics that begins the second act (the script suggests it’s optional), Comlish manages to make such a good case for it as comedy that those who know the play may suspect for a while that he’s found a way to integrate Lenin into the overall prankishness. But nothing the directoror, for that matter, actors Lonardo and Butterworthcan do diminishes the soporific effect of the Communist theoretician’s late-in-the-evening harangues about ideological purity in art and the worthlessness of the bourgeois intelligentsia. They’re written straight and pretty much have to be played that way, divorced in style and substance from all the gamesmanship and wordplay that surrounds them, as if the Czech-born playwright felt the need in 1974 to make the threat of such pronouncements crystal clear. About all a director can do is hope an audience will leap back with him when Gwendolyn and Cecily finally interrupt with silly rhymed couplets. At Clark Street, patrons do, and the evening catches fire again for the final stretch.
Stoppard is no longer much performed hereabouts for some reason, which is certainly a shame. Back in the ’70s, when Washington still had a decent rep as a tryout town (long since tarnished by the Post’s notoriously unconstructive pre-Broadway pans of such Tony and Pulitzer winners as Amadeus, M. Butterfly, and Lost in Yonkers), Stoppard’s brilliant farces regularly made their American debuts in this city. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers, Travesties, and Night and Day all worked out kinks at the National or KenCen before Broadway, while Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Dogg’s Hamlet, and Dirty Linen played here shortly after premiering elsewhere. Arena Stage, if memory serves, even mounted the first U.S. production of Undiscovered Country, Stoppard’s adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Das Weite Land.
Washington was Stoppard country then, with audiences so attuned to his wordplay that the progressively scattered nature of his plots scarcely seemed to matter. Travesties is a comparatively early play, but it’s really no easier to render with clarity than most of the author’s later work. The original New York production couldn’t last even one full season despite rave reviews, largely because so many patrons were left baffled by it, and Stoppard’s subsequent shows have mostly been mounted either off-Broadway or in limited runs. Here in D.C. the playwright’s fans have had only Studio’s R & G Are Dead and a few community-theater productions to savor in the last five years, a fact that made Arena’s announcement that Doug Wager (for whom Comlish recently assistant-directed Candide, and from whom he obviously learned a thing or three) would stage Stoppard’s Arcadia this December all the more gratifying. What a bonus to have scrappy WSC bringing audiences up to speed two months earlier in Travesties.
If the company chooses to explore the playwright’s oeuvre further, and can maintain production quality at this level, it’s not hard to imagine seasonal Stoppard doing for WSC what seasonal Sondheim has done for its Arlington neighbor, Signature Theater, or what seasonal George F. Walker has done for Round House. Those companies are now so established in the public mind as homes for a particular sort of intimately intellectual evening that subscribers often buy up all available seats before critics even get to see them. Would that something similar might happen on Clark Street.CP