The official explanation for why Court Theatre paired The Misanthrope and Travesties for its spring repertory package is that artistic director Charles Newell wanted “two plays as different as possible that use the same number of actors,” a spokeswoman told me at last weekend’s marathon opening day. Still, several common elements link these two serious comedies–the first, by Moliere, dating from 1666, the second being Tom Stoppard’s 1993 rewrite of his 1974 hit. Both focus on the conflict between established society in all its hypocritical triviality and outsiders from that society–cultural exiles set apart, if not actually cast out, because of their radical visions of personal truth. And the plots of both plays hinge on petty, vindictive lawsuits filed against the protagonists mainly for purposes of harassment. This is rotating repertory for the age of tort reform.
Most important for the purpose of evaluating this double-feature showcase of ensemble acting, both plays rely principally on language to make their effects. Movement and design are important, of course; but the key to unlocking the odd juxtapositions of satire, melancholy, and passion in The Misanthrope and Travesties is the ability to make long, idiosyncratic, often archaically phrased speeches convey fresh and distinctive insights into the characters’ psychology and the playwrights’ expression of strongly held, intensely conflicting ideas.
This is why one production soars and the other never quite takes off. Newell’s staging of The Misanthrope, with the superb Kevin Gudahl as the self-righteous and self-destructive moralist of the title, casts fascinating new light on Moliere’s 17th-century masterpiece; but the same director’s Travesties, with Larry Yando as a common man surrounded by revolutionary geniuses, takes the play’s quicksilver wit and flattens it into monodynamic burlesque that seldom approaches the play’s potential.
Staged with the elegant formality of a minuet in Richard Wilbur’s 1955 verse translation, Newell’s Misanthrope embraces the dark psychological implications of Moliere’s text as well as its stinging attacks on what Gudahl’s character Alceste repeatedly terms the “base,” “false” world in which he lives. Constitutionally incapable of compromising his strongly held, mostly negative opinions of his fellow human beings, Alceste is ironically ensnared in a dangerous liaison with a notoriously fickle woman, the beautiful Celimene. Alceste’s intransigent candor and Celimene’s compulsive duplicity epitomize two extreme responses to society’s insincerity: they’re totally incompatible–but the heat their friction generates makes them unfit for anyone else. Newell and his superb leads–Hollis Resnik’s acidly brittle, almost psychopathically dissatisfied Celimene makes a fine foil for Gudahl’s virile, tormented Alceste–emphasize the lovers’ sexual attraction as well as the inherent capacity for violence in their relationship. Fine supporting performances–especially by John Reeger, hilariously ripe as the orotund Oronte, Alceste’s rival for Celimene’s affection, and Amy Farrington as the woman whose sincerity wins Alceste’s admiration but fails to stir his passions–bolster the central relationship, as does the simple but gorgeous white-on-white period design by John Culbert (set and lights) and Gayland Spaulding (costumes).
But the crucial element is Gudahl. Eschewing stagy grandiosity as well as the buffoonery that Moliere himself reportedly brought to the role, this excellent actor makes us sense Alceste’s torment through very finely detailed vocal inflections. The character’s moralism, potentially irritating, rings painfully true even when its effect is also funny, as in Alceste’s sincere but doomed effort to be polite about Oronte’s ridiculous attempts at poetry; usually played snidely, the moment is both funnier and more touching when Alceste is really trying to be nice to the subject of his extravagant invective. In this and every other scene, the tonal variety and flexibility of Gudahl’s voice unlocks the nuances of this marvelously complex play.
Dazzlingly clever and dauntingly dense, Travesties shimmers with mercurial shifts in tone to portray the birth of contemporary Western culture out of the ashes of old empires. Set mostly in Zurich in 1917–an absurd oasis of neutrality in the middle of World War I–the play depicts the memories of Henry Carr, a minor British diplomat whose senile, digressive mind replays real and fantasized encounters with and among James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and Lenin. Playing off the fact that these three pioneering thinkers, all expatriates, actually did take refuge in Switzerland at the same time, Stoppard also takes inspiration from Joyce’s having employed Carr in real life to play Algernon in a Zurich production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: Stoppard’s Carr banters with his butler in a replay of Earnest’s opening scene (except this butler is a Bolshevik spy) and then pursues Cecily, a character lifted straight from Wilde–except here she’s a librarian helping Lenin write his manifestos. Meanwhile Tzara, one of the founders of the anarchic antiart movement Dadaism, woos Carr’s sister Gwendolen (another Wilde transplant) and engages the resolutely establishment Carr in debates over the artist’s role in society–as social critic or aloof aesthete, beautifier or mocker of a base and brutal world, guardian priest of humanity’s holiest values or vandal assaulting them.
These fierce, eloquent arguments give Travesties an emotional richness to bolster its glittering surface. Underneath Stoppard’s ingenious mixing of original and appropriated texts–music hall parodies, limericks, lyric poetry, racist rantings, and large chunks of Wilde, Shakespeare, and Joyce–is a deep concern for what the artistic impulse says about the human soul, and how that impulse’s exploitation, glamorization, mystification, and commercialization affect the changing values of an unstable world.
But Stoppard’s literary collage requires a lead actor with much greater vocal flexibility than Larry Yando, whose mugging, prancing Carr conveys only the character’s burlesque facade. Everything Yando says sounds the same–maybe a little louder here or a little softer there, but that’s all. The crucial arguments with Harry Althaus’s Tzara are heavy, as if the two men were each simply trying to have the last word rather than make each word count; the interplay with David Frutkoff as the butler is completely lacking in the casual elegance Wildean comedy of manners demands, resulting in a remarkable number of lost laughs. Perhaps now that the rigors of preparing two demanding plays for the same opening day are past, Yando and his fellow actors (including Gudahl as Lenin and Resnik and Farrington as Gwendolen and Cecily) will relax and begin exploring more of the text’s subtleties.
Even with its drawbacks, Travesties remains an unusual and important work that rewards an audience’s attention. But the trump card of this pair is clearly The Misanthrope.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Matthew Gilson.