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Review: A Terrific Travesty

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Raise a glass to wit! The American Conservatory Theatre of San Francisco successfully opened its 40th remarkable season with Tom Stoppard's stimulating comedy, Travesties, directed by Carey Perloff.  In a whirlwind of contradictory arguments and intellectual eloquence, audiences amusingly find Zurich may have been the last place to find neutrality during war!

To mark their historic opening night, Perloff and Heather Kitchen (Executive Director) held a pre-show ribbon cutting celebrating the official renaming of the Geary Theatre to the American Conservatory Theatre! Champagne was also served during intermission...though Perloff warned the house: "Don't drink too much...it's Stoppard tonight, afterall!"

To truly enjoy Travesties, you must truly enjoy Stoppard.  His articulate patter and steam-engine dialogue are, frankly, not for the weak of mind.  It is easy to get lost in the comedy of 10-minute monologues about socialism...but you must ride it out.  I suggest Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, and if you're not laughing by page 3, set it down and try again in 6 months.  I'll admit, last night I got left-behind in Lenin's platform, but the comedic rewards in the long-run are worth the periodic mental meandering.

Travesties circles around the fact three historic revolutionists of politics, literature, and art (Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara respectively) were all living in 1917 Zurich, Switzerland at the same time.  Stoppard wonders: "What if these three gentlemen had met?" and lets a senile British officer, Henry Carr, narrate the pending chaos.

The vastly complicated characters are presented by seven actors whose on-stage relationships are both invigorating and committed.  Each demonstrates sublime timing with Stoppard's challenging script, specifically during a scene spoken entirely in limerick!

Geordie Johnson portrays Henry Carr, whose misplaced self-confidence in knowledge of culture and politics, lends itself to hilariously unsound arguments with the other leading men.  His senselessness, like ignorantly questioning "unaccompanied women smoking at the opera," is pristine.  Commendably, Johnson melts back and forth from a sprite, young Carr to a wheel-chair-bound, elderly Carr seamlessly...with efficient changes in costume, posture, and voice.

Anthony Fusco as James Joyce seems to have the most level-head during the argumentative stalemates – with the best comedic moments while with others.  He cleverly sells Carr into accepting a role in his production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest with a break-down of what trousers he'll wear!

Gregory Wallace represents the crowd-favorite, Tristan Tzara, the eccentric Dada poet. Wallace's interactions with the other characters, like sitting on Carr's muffins, are delightful.  During one scene, Tzara cuts up a Shakespearian sonnet, to be rearranged into another poem, in hopes of wooing Gwendolen (René Augsen).  The nearly orgasmic outcome is riotous.  Joyce describes Tzara as "an overexcited little man, with a need for self-expression far beyond the scope of [his] natural gifts"…self-expression that often manifests into tantrums!

Geoff Hoyle rightly earns twice the amount of applause, representing Lenin and Carr's butler, Bennett.  Hoyle skillfully slides from one character to another, often hiding Lenin's beard while embodying the ironic house-servant, or quickly switching accents while representing the powerfully articulate revolutionist.  As Lenin's wife, Nadya, Joan Mankin utilizes her calculated facial expressions and commanding stage-presence to convey an icy, yet endearing devotion to her husband.

Polishing off the ensemble are Augsen (Gwendolen) and ACT's newest and youngest core member, Allison Jean White (Cecily).  In perhaps the most memorable scene, these two delicious belles spout complicated rhythmic lines in speedy four-four time! White's principle debut as the Swiss librarian is amusing and charming, and I'm eager to see her talent on-stage again.

Tony Award-nominated set designer, Douglas W. Schmidt, has created magnificent scenery which flows dreamingly through Carr's memories.  During the opening, we find stylistically tilted library shelves and picture frames suspended before a bright sky-scape.  Overhead, a circular map of northern Europe serves as a glowing red pendulum of memory.

The play is artfully interwoven with choice music and sound, including the use of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet during Lenin's entrances (my personal favorite), as well as a persistent tick-tock, emulating Carr's slipping brain.  In fact, each aspect of design is top-notch, down to the actors' expertly-trained dialects (coached by Deborah Sussel), ranging from Irish and Russian to Romanian-influenced French.

All together, Travesties is highly enjoyable and intellectually stimulating.  Whether you leave the theatre scratching your head or with sore cheeks from 2 hours of smiling, Perloff and Stoppard have made a wonderful coupling and start of a new season.

Travesties runs through Oct. 22 at the American Conservatory Theatre (405 Geary St., San Francisco).  For tickets and information call 415-749-2ACT or visit www.act-sf.org.


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From This Author Eugene Lovendusky

Eugene Lovendusky graduated summa cum laude from SFSU with a BA in Writing for Electronic Media and a minor in Drama. Raised in the SF (read more...)