April 5, 2005

Isaac, Mercedes answer Tom with play of their own

Scene One: A sleepy Sunday morning in front of the Med Bakery.

ISAAC: Hey Mercedes, whatcha doin' tonight?

MERCEDES: No plans. You?

ISAAC: I just scored two tickets to Travesties, the new play at Court Theatre. It's a flashback from the memory of Henry Carr, a British diplomat living in Zurich around World War I. In his memory, Carr interacts with three intellectual heavyweights who had very different views on the meaning of art. You in?

MERCEDES: Uh, sounds like Hum class. But yeah, why not?

Scene Two: Intermission of the play, in line to buy overpriced tea.

MERCEDES: I don't like that there was no room for interpretation. Stoppard has an agenda—the play has a thesis. Inevitably, in theater, the playwright's message will be obscured in the production process, or simply not picked up by the audience. There should be room for the audience's interpretation. Stoppard stuffed this play with so many historical references and conflicting theories about art and politics that I could do nothing but sit back and hope to absorb it all. I felt like I was reading an essay.

ISAAC: Yeah, but what was the point of Travesties? To me, it was about the intersection of art, politics, and society. Each of the three intellectual bad boys illustrated different currents of thought as they wrestled with each other early in the century. James Joyce, the brilliant Irish writer working on his forthcoming classic Ulysses, was pitted against Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dadaism. Known as the artistic movement that brought us the fur-covered teacup, Dadaism wanted to purge meaning from art. Finally, Vladimir Lenin, the rising Soviet leader, spent his sojourn in Zurich articulating that personal expression must be in line with the greater social good.

MERCEDES: I agree that there were some interesting dialogues expounding the role of art in politics, revolution, et cetera. But how do you think it held together as a play? However, I did love how Carr narrated the play as a senile old man, and the scenes were muddled as though they were the memories of a doddering septuagenarian. I think that was the most compelling part. What did you think of the plot?

ISAAC: As Jay Sherman, à la The Critic, would say: "It stinks." There was no beginning, middle, or end. I like my entertainment to be entertaining, and I like stories that start somewhere and end, um, preferably somewhere else. The fact that the play was such an explicit statement on art took it far away from the meat-and-potatoes kind of story line. And I like meat. And potatoes. And now, right back at you: To whom would you recommend this play?

MERCEDES: I'd recommend it to anyone who thrived in Power, Identity, and Resistance—reading all that Marx and Adam Smith—or anyone who gets off on arguing about the merits of socialism and art. I would add that, if you enjoy catching erudite references to historical events, turn-of-the-century literature, and post-World War I cultural icons, then this play is definitely for you. Especially if you also have a taste for zingy, pithy monologues, and a distaste for coherence. What did you think of Charles Newell's production, Ike?

ISAAC: For what he had to work with, Newell rocked. As much as a challenge as Stoppard must have had weaving the three intellectuals into Carr's memory as he wrote Travesties, Newell's task was at least of the same magnitude. After all, he had to make it all come together. He did a solid job. The scenery—the inside of a Zurich library—was satisfying, with painted letters on the walls and a second-floor balcony arching across the stage. Another high point was the use of props, including extensive flags and scarves. Can you say "eye candy?" Stoppard, known to weave characters in and out of dialogue and interrupt frequently, made no exception in Travesties. Newell choreographed the interruptions brilliantly—especially Joyce's limericks. Mercedes, when I would return from a museum or play as a kid, my mom would ask me what I learned from my experience. What did you learn from this play?

MERCEDES: Way to put me on the spot, Ike. I didn't learn anything.

ISAAC: Oh, come on.

MERCEDES: All right. All the discourse on art may have been conveyed through old Carr's faulty memory, but I thought Stoppard's characters made a few insightful remarks. Tzara made absurd art mirror what he saw as the absurdity of trench warfare. Carr criticized artists whom he thought were bowing out of their responsibilities to state and society. Lenin seemed to agree with the bourgeois consul's ideas about art, and James Joyce was way out on a limb all by himself. I think I would have spent the evening just as well had I stayed at home and read some Joyce, or Tzara—or Lenin, for that matter. But Stoppard gave me a few questions to ponder. That's worth something.