9 August 2003: Stoppard, Travesties

Williamstown Festival Theatre, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Directed by Gregory Boyd

A full-dress, sumptuously produced revival of one of Stoppard’s most challenging and satisfying plays, very well cast and performed at the kind of rigorously sustained fast pace appropriate for farce. Of course, Stoppard plays fast and loose with the genre here, straining and even mocking audience expectations. But this audience loved it all the same — as I did. Boyd went off track (I borrow the metaphor from the play itself) at two points, I thought: (1) at the beginning, instead of commencing with the scene with Carr and Bennett modeled on Act I of The Importance of Being Earnest, we get a preview of the Act II library scene: a beautiful, dark-haired, eye-glassed Cecily walks determinedly down stage, turns to the audience, and, finger to lips, says “Shhhh!” in a very loud, well-miked whisper, as a huge, anachronistic sign with cut-out sans serif caps is lowered into view: it says


— a taste of what we are going to get; and the preview includes various other characters as well. It’s unclear what this accomplishes, except for handily introducing the characters.

(2) The second run off track is a whipped cream pie fight between Cecily and Gwendolen in Act II which ends up involving Carr and Bennett (and Tristan Tzara? I don’t exactly recall): a completely wordless sequence that screamed “extreme farce” but had the effect of unduly lengthening an already quite long play (total playing time: three hours) and the additional effect of slowing the momentum of the action. But I note these distractions only as minor flaws in what was truly a splendid evening in the theatre, a glorious one that at the same time did the complexity of Stoppard’s play and its serious thematic occupation with the conflict posed by characters and situation over the aims of our (socially useful? or perversely useless?) full justice. The characters — the actors, I mean to say — had evidently been drilled hard in diction, and every word was distinct and fully audible and understandable (or would have been, had I and my friend not been sitting too far to the side, in the third row of the orchestra against the wall of the auditorium, where there were some acoustical problems). I liked David Garrison’s Carr and Michael Stuhlbarg’s Tzara especially well, but the entire cast was very strong. The Gwendolen, Lynn Collins, a beautiful red-haired woman, lithe and graceful, seemed a bit less than right for the role, but her vivacity and poise soon convinced me otherwise. The Cecily, Kali Rocha, a statuesque, black-haired, glinting-eyed beauty in her own right, could play the imperious side of Cecily perfectly well, yet exuded a sensuality that was quite delicious all the way through and stood out in no uncertain terms in the Act II strip-tease sequence, in which she bared all except for what remained covered by perfect in-period muted-stripe drawers, under fulsome red lights that spoke more of a New Orleans club than of a Zürich library.

It was clear throughout that Boyd understood the play very well. Whether he had been to the dictionary to look up Bennett’s tongue-twister “fissiparous disequilibrium” we will never know, but he certainly did capture Stoppard’s structurally and thematically central idea, perhaps best captured in W. B. Yeats’s phrase “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” It is this idea that, perversely yet blithely, stands — or totters — at the center of Stoppard’s play. It is a tall order to play this work for the breathlessly paced farce that it is and at the same time to make the most of its wonderfully inventive ideas. Boyd did that, and with a cast that evidently relished their roles and everything else about this play — one of Stoppard’s best, most demanding works. The man who sat next to me, with his wife, on the aisle, told me, before the play began, what a wonderful theatre this is and alluded to the smaller theatre, the “Nikos,” which I’ve not been in, as also an important place. He then proceeded to sleep through most of Act I and, along with his wife, disappeared at intermission, not to return. He missed almost all of one of the best revivals of a Stoppard play that I have ever seen, while proving that, alas, Stoppard is not for everyone.

(That smaller theatre is named for the late Nikos Psacharopoulos, who became the artistic director of WFT in 1956, almost at the start of the enterprise, and remained for thirty-three years.)


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book