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The Bloom Generation

Travesties Wonders What Could Have Been During This Modernism Era

START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME: Michele Simon hangs fire in Zurich.

By John Barry | Posted 6/21/2006

Travesties

By Tom Stoppard

At the Swirnow Theater through June 25

Since being eased out of the Merrick Barn last summer, Theatre Hopkins has been lodged temporarily in the Mattin Center. But if the production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties is any indication, a little dislocation agrees with the company. This play is a tall order for any cast, but under the direction of Tim Fowler, Theatre Hopkins has brought a 2 1/2-hour postmodern dinosaur to life. In fact, it’s one of the season’s best, and funniest, productions.

Travesties takes place in 1917 Zurich, where James Joyce was busy composing the "Oxen of the Sun" chapter of Ulysses and trying to get his Exiles play staged with the assistance of the British Consulate. Lenin, meanwhile, was busy reformulating Karl Marx and waiting to seize the day. Somewhere around the perimeter, Jean Arp and his band of Dadaists were telling everybody what everybody already knew: that nothing made much sense in 1917.

All of the above is narrated through the eyes of Henry Carr (Jason Hentrich), the British Consular officer in Zurich, who was salvaged from the trenches of France by a bullet to the leg. A half-century or so later, as an old man, he recalls his tenure in Switzerland: where Lenin (Michele Simon) and Joyce (Tony Colavito) were each, in their own ways, transforming Western civilization. And in his London flat, the old man revels in the reflected glory of two cultural revolutionaries who lived on opposite sides of the same street and frequented the same public library but never really crossed paths.

Simon and Colavito don’t just take on their characters’ skins physically and vocally. They also put their own stamps on the two most easily packaged icons of the modern era. In an excellent performance, Colavito’s Joyce is a bit of a drunken lout with a will to power. As Lenin, Simon manages to inject moments of bookish charm into the famously charismatic persona. In short, there’s a little Lenin in Joyce, and a little Joyce in Lenin.

As Carr, Hentrich plays the central role--or, if you will, the empty center--of Stoppard’s scenario. He’s the chief narrator--and he’s got a good deal of narrating to do--but his role is peripheral. Carr goes through several noticeable transformations--from diminished age to youth, from proper Englishman to slightly zany Dadaist--but he never loses the middle-class diffidence that gives the play its balance.

The Dadaist Tristan Tzara is never really meant to be taken seriously, but Brian Hurwitz’s performance negotiates hairpin turns as his character changes disguises, accents, and moods. At the end, when the Dadaist is confronted with Shakespeare, suddenly the radical anti-artist is seduced by the Immortal Bard.

Seduction, in the end, is what gives all of Stoppard’s characters their human face. Even as they put on their masks, and play their public roles to the hilt, they waver. Lenin may be on his way to revolution, but he cries like a baby when he hears a Beethoven sonata. Literary lion Joyce is easily diverted by Gwendolen (Rebecca Ellis). In a wonderful performance as the butler Bennett, Omar Pulliam lets his character fall prey to the seductions of the bottle and Karl Marx. Gwendolen and Cecily (Laurel Peyrot), meanwhile, while declaring their artistic and political allegiances to Joyce and Lenin respectively, quickly descend into catfighting whenever they think they’re being jilted.

If there’s magic in Stoppard’s re-imaging of history and literature, it’s in the feeling that with a few twists of fate history could have turned out very differently. The Theatre Hopkins players keep that sense of possibility alive in this controlled but energetic performance.

And, oh yes, this play opened on Bloomsday. For anyone who spent June 16 toasting Joyce and getting toasted, pay tribute this weekend by going to a play that gives him a run for your money. There’s only one week left.

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