In 1974, when playwright Tom Stoppard premiered Travesties, he was still hot from his 1966 freshman effort, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which had won him a shelf-load of trophies, including the Tony award for best new play.
Travesties, a historical fantasia (today we'd call it a mashup), is a blend of Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest and some minor historical footnotes from 1917. Packed to overflowing with limericks, rhymes, newspaper quotes, art-world trivia, lesser-known Shakespeare lines and obscure literary references, the play was a great cause of conversation. Some deemed it to be rambling, overstuffed and out-of-control. Others (the folks who actually got the esoteric references) claimed it to be cheekily brilliant. It did win Stoppard another Tony, and after that, having apparently gotten whatever it was out of his system, Stoppard gained some self-control and spun off a string of masterpieces: The Real Thing, Arcadia, India Ink, The Coast of Utopia and Rock 'n' Roll.
With such good, tightly crafted plays in his canon—and with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern still available for anyone with a taste for lovable literary vandalism—there seems little reason to foist Travesties on audiences ever again. The lit majors would probably prefer to read the thing, anyway.
So what in the world were they thinking when Travesties was chosen for this year's season opener of the annual outdoor Marin Shakespeare Company? Were the rights to Stoppard's good plays unavailable? Did someone lose a bet? Or was director Robert Currier simply up for a hard directorial challenge?
I will assume it was the latter.
The company's production certainly gives Currier (known for his own bad-boy sense of humor) plenty of opportunities to dig deep and pull out all his tricks, and it is a testament to his inventive talents—and those of his first-rate cast—that this production is as entertaining as it is. Stoppard's long, long soliloquies are made less endless by Currier's staging, which occasionally involves staircases spinning across the stage as the actors deliver their detailed speeches. At least there is something to look at. Currier has also added syncopated library bells, spinning clocks, food fights—and anything else he could think of to make things interesting.
The cast is equally energetic, from the reliably slaptickish Darren Bridgett as the certifiably odd Dadaist artist Tristan Tzara and Stephen Klum (brilliant) as Vladimir Lenin to Lucas McClure's restrained James Joyce and Alexandra Matthew's lit-loving librarian Cecily. As the central character of Henry Carr, the low-level English diplomat around whom the various characters interact, William Elsman is especially outrageous, leaping back in forth in time from his young days serving in Switzerland (when he once played a role in a production of Earnest), to the present, when his slightly senile brain can't quite remember everything exactly the way it happened.
In the end, watching MSC's Travesties is like watching people juggle fire while walking blindfold on a tightrope over a pit of hungry alligators. Whether done skillfully or not, the main entertainment comes from knowing that they are crazy to be doing it in the first place.
'Travesties' runs Friday&–Sunday through Aug. 15 at Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, at Dominican University, San Rafael. Friday&–Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 4pm. $20&–$35. 415.499.4488.