It would be an overstatement to call 2013 “The Year of Tom Stoppard” in San Diego theater, but this certainly has been a banner summer and fall for the knighted, Czech-born British playwright whose wit, intelligence and audacity permeate so many distinguished works. Among them are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the Hamlet knockoff that was the highlight of the Old Globe’s summer season, and Travesties, the fearless romp through literature and history (with heaping helpings of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest) now on stage at Cygnet’s Old Town Theatre. Cygnet Artistic Director Sean Murray is presenting Travesties and The Importance of Earnest in rotating repertory, just as he did 11 years ago when he was at the helm of the North Coast Rep. Seven actors are doing double duty, appearing in both plays: Jordan Miller, Maggie Carney, Manny Fernandes, Jacque Wilke, Brian Mackey, David Cochran Heath and Rachael VanWormer.
Of the two plays, Travesties is the more daunting, in part because of its non-linear composition, packed as it is with commentary on artistic purpose, precepts of Dadaism, characterizations of Lenin and James Joyce and Tristan Tzara (a founder of the Dada movement), and interweavings of Wilde’s classic The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s all recounted by the highly unreliable narrator that is Henry Carr (Miller), who may or may not be remembering actual events from World War I-era Zurich.
The effect is exhausting, as the action on stage seems to spin giddily out of control (though it’s not, thanks to Murray’s deft direction and a cast operating with pinpoint precision), and the literary, philosophical and political references are so ubiquitous that even the most scholarly audience member should keep his or her program glossary handy. In spite of these challenges, you can’t but be appreciate anew of Stoppard’s creative stamina and inventiveness. Travesties might not make you want to sit down and read Joyce’s gargantuan “Ulysses,” but it might reaffirm your belief in the integrity of knighthood and remind you that Sir Tom Stoppard is worthy of that and more.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.