Bawdiness and Brains

Anyone who has been to the movies lately has probably seen playwright Tom Stoppard's work. His award-winning Shakespeare In Love filled the screen with luscious images and intricate verbal play. But as smart as the film is, it doesn't begin to reveal the intellectual scope of Stoppard's imagination. This writer, who left high school never to return after only two years, is now considered the most intellectual dramatist living in the western world.

One need only see the Alley's jubilant production of Travesties to understand how Stoppard garnered this reputation. Who else could build an entire script around the odd historical coincidence that found Lenin (James Blecher), dadaist poet Tristan Tzara (Jeffrey Bean) and James Joyce (John Feltch) all living in Zurich, Switzerland, during World War I?

There is no historical evidence that these three giants of the modern age ever actually met, but in the mixed up mind of Travesties' central character, an aging Swiss bureaucrat by the name of Henry Carr (John Tyson), the three great minds collide, conversing about art and politics.

As highbrowed as all this might sound, there is nothing in the least bit stuffy in either Stoppard's writing or the Alley's production. Between the ingenious technical designers, the outlandishly bawdy director and the wonderfully witty actors, deep thinking never before looked like so much fun. Joe Pino's cartoon sound effects are a riot. In the hushed Zurich, shoes clomp, scissors snap and heads boink together. Jeanne Button's costumes, which include Joyce's perpetually unmatching suit of clothes and rip-away ruffled dresses, are visually arresting. And set designer Kevin Rigdon has painted the Alley's entire black box theater a brilliant shade of Chinese red, upsetting tradition and expectations just like any good dadaist would.

Up in the catwalk is a collection of weird things signifying the confusion in Henry Carr's rather timid bureaucratic mind: A pink flamingo, an enameled bathroom sink, a bull's horns, a bowling ball bag, an old-fashioned film reel, tennis rackets and a child's wicker chair are just some of what's there. Lenin rides into Russia on a miniature train that chugs right through center stage. And when Henry's girlfriend fights with Lenin's librarian follower, they do so over a stage-big canvas that folds out with the precision of a circus tent.

In fact, a lot of this production feels like a trip to the big top. Gregory Boyd's marvelous direction is rich with the ribald pyrotechnics of modern-day clowns. At one point priggish librarian Cecily (Amy McKenna) strips down to her stockinged ruffled skivvies to wiggle a hoochie-cooch dance on the library checkout counter. Joyce, Henry and the ladies dance a sort of exaggerated tango as they argue about "the meaning of the word 'art,' " and whether there "is any point in language at all." Is it "the duty of the artist to beautify existence" or to engage "social criticism" ?

Somehow, in this production these enormous ideas blaze across the stage like rapid-firing artillery, asking the audience to question every notion they might hold about art, class and western politics. And all the while, they simply can't stop laughing.

In fact, Stoppard's brilliance comes across most in his childlike delight with the absurdity of language. Henry can't quite remember Joyce's name, calling him at turns Phyllis, Deidre and Doris. We learn that the original title of Joyce's Ulysses was Elasticized Bloomers. Oscar Wilde was an "Irish Gamorist." And when Henry, the dim-witted bureaucrat, can't quite understand what's happening in the paper, his trusty manservant (played with charmingly absurd stiffness by Paul Hope) explains Marxist dialecticalism. Henry assumes that the Russian "social uprising" happening at the turn of the century means that "unaccompanied women [were seen] smoking at the opera," though he is smart enough to know that "irony among the lower classes is the first sign of social unrest."

Of course, Henry Carr's daffy observations on such enormously serious subjects wouldn't be nearly so funny were it not for Tyson's performance. He scuttles about the stage, railing against the lower classes with the energy of a busy bug; he falls to his knees in radiant love of women; he fusses with his fists waving in the air about the ridiculousness of dadaism.

John Feltch's Joyce is also wonderfully, pompously silly with befuddled intelligence. And James Belcher's uncannily real Lenin offers stunning moments of large sadness that are immediately shattered with his fine comic timing. Likewise, Bean as the lascivious Tristan Tzara -- the dadaist poet who made poems by cutting up the words in Shakespearean sonnets and pulling them out of a hat -- is quite good. And Shelley Black, Amy McKenna and Annalee Jefferies (who plays Lenin's Nayda) are by turns girlishly silly, sexy and very smart.

Tom Stoppard has said that he doesn't write plays "for discussion." And in a way, he's right. Travesties, with all its elegant intellectual depth, its bawdy comedy and its rip-roaring wild energy, will leave most audience members mute with adoring admiration.

Travesties runs through June 13 at the Alley Neuhaus Theatre, 615 Texas, (713)228-8421. $36-$40.

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Lee Williams