BYU’s ‘Travesties’ explores historical issues through comedy

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(Michael Handley)
Chris Rollins plays Tristan Tzara, a leading artist in the Dada movement. The play covers many schools of thought popular in the 20th century. (Michael Handley)

Tom Stoppard’s play “Travesties” gives BYU audiences a peek into the world of Europe during World War I, mixed with connections and references to Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

The play premiered in 1974 and takes viewers on a bizarre and unpredictable walk down memory lane with an old man, landing them in Zurich in 1917.

Henry Carr isn’t the most reliable narrator, and the 80-year-old protagonist mixes his recollections of historical figures he met in Zurich with the plot of “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

In what sounds like a bad joke, James Joyce (author of “Ulysses”), Tristan Tzara (Dada artist) and Vladimir Lenin (communist Russian revolutionary) meet in a library. The rest is misremembered history.

Director Megan Sanborn Jones said she began teaching the play in theater history classes years ago.

“It’s a play that’s so well suited to teaching history,” Jones said. “I’ve never run across a text that is more interesting and funny and teaches about a particular time period — specifically 1875-1915 in Europe — as well as this play.”

The play is connected to Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” in two ways. In 1917, James Joyce produced a showing of “Earnest” in Zurich starring Henry Carr, who Joyce eventually sued for breach of contract. This real-life event figures largely into the plot of “Travesties.”

Second, the older version of Carr frequently gets the plot of “Earnest” caught up with his memories of life in Zurich. This happens so often that Jones said about one-third of the play’s lines come directly from “Earnest.”

The connections between the two shows made it logical for them to appear in the same season at BYU and the university emphasized the connection by presenting them in similar ways.

“Travesties” and “Earnest” shared the same set designer, and the two sets have an identical shape and pattern.

(Michael Handley)
Peter Lambert (Henry Carr) and Mariah Bowles (Cecily) discuss communism. Though comedic, “Travesties” deals with several of the era’s weightier issues. (Michael Handley)

Jones said “Travesties” is unusual for BYU because it’s absurdist, without a plot that follows through or characters that develop in a normal trajectory. It’s also wordy.

She said the play needed a cast who was up to the challenge, who was good with accents, and who was adventurous in understanding how theater works. The students who were cast in the play, Jones said, ended up being “simply outstanding.”

Peter Lambert, a junior majoring in music dance theater, said he was first interested in the play because of its variety of dialects (Irish, Russian, British and a Romanian/French mix). He met with Jones to talk about being the show’s dialect coach, but he said he became completely lost when Jones explained the plot to him.

Even after being cast as Henry Carr and reading the complete script, Lambert said he initially was very confused.

“There is no plot,” Lambert said. “That’s something very clear. If you come expecting a plot, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.”

Mariah Bowles, a senior majoring in acting, said she thinks of the play like Shakespeare in a way because it’s the actors’ jobs to make the play accessible to the audience. She said the cast spent the first part of the rehearsal process studying the script in order to understand the dense vocabulary, historical references and sophisticated comedy in the show.

Bowles said they needed deeper understanding to help the audience navigate Carr’s memories, which aren’t always easy to comprehend.

“[In the play] we’re transported to the crazy, mishmashed disaster that is his mind,” Bowles said.

Sometimes Carr gets halfway through a memory and realizes he’s messed it up. The actors look like they’re going to take the old theater adage “break a leg” seriously as they run wildly backwards around the stage to ‘rewind’ to the moment of derailment. One scene is done entirely in limericks. Another is put to music and sung.

Bowles and Lambert said the play is more random and spontaneous than “Earnest,” but also more profound.

“It’s so funny,” Bowles said. “It’s crazy and all over the place, but it’s also touching and has depth, and so it’s been a treat to get more into it.”

Jones said the play, though silly at times, is full of important historical issues and themes that apply to our age as well as Carr’s.

“The play itself is delightful,” Jones said. “It’s smart, it’s insightful. It makes you think about the importance of art and what kind of art matters, and revolution, and war.  Some of the things that they’re talking about are things that I hear students talking about right now, today, about the world we’re living in. Some of the same questions that Tom Stoppard was asking when he wrote the play in 1974 are the same questions that people were asking in 1917.”

Travesties runs through Dec. 3.

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