The importance of seeing ‘Travesties’

Earnest goes camp in A.C.T.’s opening-night production

Penned in 1974, Tom Stoppard’s loosey-goosey comedy “Travesties” imagines what might have happened if Russian revolutionist Lenin, author James Joyce and Dada artist Tristan Tzara had a serendipitous meeting in Zurich, Switzerland, say, in a public library, in 1917.

This meeting, so to speak, is told through the hazy memory of Henry Carr, who claims to have run into each of these gentlemen while playing the role of Algernon Moncrieff in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” in the original production produced by James Joyce.

(Carr was a real person who sued Joyce when he failed to reimburse the actor for trousers, gloves and a few other accessories purchased for the play.)

Eventually, the plot of “Earnest” overlaps with that of Carr’s story, making an already chaotic event, that much more.

Ridiculous, absurd, but so beautifully clever, “Travesties” debates with great fervor the point of politics and art, raising so many questions, and ending with not one answer.

It is an interesting choice indeed to open the American Conservatory Theater’s 40th anniversary on Wednesday night, which also coincides with the 15th anniversary of Carey Perloff as A.C.T.’s artistic director.

What’s more, the historic Geary Theater officially became the American Conservatory Theater, packing one more thing to celebrate into an already jam-packed opening night.

And instead of staging a production that might speak to the almighty power of theater to reflect our past, present and future, to evoke change, and signal the revolution, Perloff chooses a show that says nothing of the sort.

And my goodness, we couldn’t love her more for it.

A challenging play for certain “Travesties” asks quite a bit of its audience and its cast, both of which were quite up to the task Wednesday night.

Geordie Johnson is absolutely phenomenal as Carr. This is such a meaty role that is all too often forgotten in the annals of theatrical history, and Johnson devours it with relish and top-notch skill.

Tristan Tzara is beautifully played by Gregory Wallace, and Geoff Hoyle adds to the talented pool with his roles as Lenin and the butler Bennett.

And it would be a shame to overlook Rene Augesen as Gwendolen and Allison Jean White as Cecily, who shine in these uber-witty roles all too often relegated to men.

The entire cast clearly enjoyed their respective roles and each other, displaying natural rapport and buoyant synergy.

As has been the case with most productions of this show, timing again can be an issue, when lines meant to stand out as zingers get unfortunately mushed together with the rest of the fast-paced dialogue.

Stoppard’ssense of humor is such that it can take a few moments to have the joke or wit sink in, and by the time it does, the cast is already off and running to the next thing.

A hearty nod is also in order for the show’s set designer, Douglas W. Schmidt, who presents an amazing stage, especially as Lenin gives his manifesto during the second act and the entire stage becomes a letter-perfect propaganda poster from the era.

During the first act, James Joyce asks a very poignant question, “What is the meaning of all this?”

We don’t know. We don’t care. But we like it just the same.

Stage review

Travesties ???½

When: Playing through Oct. 22

Where: American Conservatory Theater (formerly the Geary Theater), located at 405 Geary St., San Francisco

Price: Tickets are $12-$80

Info: Call (415) 749-2228 or visit http://www.act-sf.org.

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