Art, politics and theater collide in Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts’s wonderful, lively production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, running through July 20.
A distorted, mile-a-minute fever dream that tells a farcical “true story” filled with real-life figures and events, Travesties is a highly satisfying romp that never stops to explain itself.
Hamptons regular Richard Kind stars as Henry Carr, a real-life consular official in Zurich. Carr, an elderly, forgetful man, claims to have known author James Joyce, Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara and a young Vladimir Lenin in 1917. The absent-minded Carr reminisces about his interactions with the three men and how they intersected, all told through a funhouse mirror-style production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Attempting to explain the plot in Travesties would do it a great injustice; the story is told through the mind of a confused old man, resulting in a nonlinear, complex narrative that simultaneously weaves together several threads. Luckily, audiences need not have an understanding of Zurich politics in the early 20th century or even a working knowledge of Dadaism to enjoy the show.
Director Gregory Boyd infuses the production with a colorful vaudevillian flair, mixing slapstick comedy in with Stoppard’s dry British humor, but he is careful to make sure that important points and developments are not glossed over in favor of spectacle. Over the course of the two-hour production, audiences will get to see a librarian perform a hilarious striptease, two women get into a purposefully misogynistic fight while covered in whipped cream (it needs to be seen to be believed), a melodramatic retelling of Lenin’s rise to power as told by the brilliantly deadpan Isabel Keating and many other raucous moments of theatrical mischief.
Travesties is the rare play that has something fun and show-stopping for every member of the cast.
The actors, led by Kind, are flawless. Kind’s radiant energy lights up the stage from the moment he appears. His portrayal of Carr is hilariously wacky while still being very human and three-dimensional. Laugh-out-loud moments are occasionally interspersed with reminders that Carr is very much a sad, lonely old man telling an obviously inaccurate story. A discussion about Carr’s time fighting in the trenches during World War I is particularly powerful, with Kind’s passion showing both pride and despair at how the war changed him.
Julia Motyka, who is Bay Street’s new educational director, revels in her role as Carr’s sister Gwendolyn, a flighty young beauty without a true care in the world. Motyka gives Gwendolyn a bit of a crazy streak—an excited, almost unhinged gleam that suggests there is more to her than meets the eye. Michael Benz and Carson Elrod perform one of the most satisfying confrontations of the evening as Tristan Tzara and James Joyce, respectively. After Tzara goes on a detailed, manic diatribe on what constitutes real art, Joyce responds with a one-line takedown that will have audiences applauding.
Stoppard, whose plays are known for their existential themes and absurdist humor, is in top form with Travesties. Though it originally premiered in June 1974, the various ideas introduced in this 40-year-old script are timeless and potent. A sprawling commentary on social reform and artistic merit, Travesties is a thinking man’s comedy that can be enjoyed on many levels. For those who don’t know about the various real-life figures and events portrayed, the slapstick and screwball comedy ensure that it never feels dense. For theatergoers who know a little more about art and politics, and who are familiar with The Importance of Being Earnest, the various references will be a treat to discover.
Bay Street’s production premiered on the anniversary of the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which was a major catalyst for World War I. Without giving too much away—nobody who sees Travesties will ever look at librarians the same way again!
Travesties runs through July 20 at Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts. For tickets ($60-$75) and more information, visit baystreet.org or call 631-725-9500 between 11 a.m. and showtime.