Staged reading of ‘Travesties’ Jan. 18-19

Talk, and action, enliven Stoppard’s study on art’s meaning

“Travesties,” running this weekend at CAST Theatre, provides plenty to think about, and for a staged reading, plenty of action.

Absurd humor and nimble wordplay rule in a play that is by turns hilarious, amorous, sad, and thought provoking — often at the same time.

CAST and the Columbia Center for the Arts present this unique farce only twice, on Jan. 18 and Jan. 19, beginning at 7:30 p.m.; tickets are $5 at the door. Columbia Center for the Arts is located at 215 Cascade Ave. in Hood River.

Following both shows, director Gregory Baisden and the cast will stay for a “Talk Back” about absurdities, propositions and conundrums revealed within the play.

Baisden said that the production “is more than a staged reading,” wherein actors simply sit and read the script. “You could just read the play but you’d almost get lost in the density of the (talk),” he said.

In “Travesties,” playwright Tom Stoppard lets his imagination run wild with a fictional moment in the midst of World War I, in 1917, when several titanic figures of the early 20th century find themselves together in Zurich.

Set at an intersection crowded with James Joyce at work on Ulysses, Tristan Tzara in reverie on the principles of Dada, and Vladimir Lenin on the verge of his return to Russia, “Travesties” portrays a moment just before several revolutions — intellectual, artistic, and political — as they explode around the world.

Stoppard draws this crowd together through the piecemeal reminiscence of Henry Carr, a real figure given a fictional life. As a memory play drawn from the mind of the now elderly Carr, Stoppard’s opus subjects his actors to the stops, starts and meandering pathways of recollection.

Conversations wander off subject before resetting and trying again, the author’s observation on the tenuous hold that the present has on history (and vice versa).

“We started off with a straightforward approach where we would just read it; but I decided to add bits in. Before you know it, the cast had so much heart and enthusiasm for the material — people quite quickly started adding business, with (characters) coming and going, adding to this tapestry, and it developed into this cut-and-paste juxtaposition of the travesties ... of making sense of the difficulties we all face,” Baisden said.

Cast members are Greg Gilbertson as Carr, Tom Burns as Joyce, Joe Garoutte as Tzara, Jason Carpenter as Lenin, Desiree Amyx Mackintosh as the librarian Cecily, Kim Salveson as the revolutionary Nadya, Emma Spaulding as Gwen and Jake Camp as the servant Bennett.

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Baisden said that beyond the “fascinating character trappings is a study of what art means for life, how we use it to understand our lives, but also how we choose to live (art) in our lives.”

Baisden highlighted the comment by playwright Oscar Wilde (who is referenced at length in “Travesties”) that “art does not reflect life, life reflects art.”

“Art lends life structure, and Stoppard is talking about the way to choose to understand and structure our lives and where art is actually a viable basis for that.”

Stoppard, according to Baisden, broke down the philosophies of the three intersecting characters of Tzara, Lenin and Joyce this way:

In essence, Tzara said that World War I proved western culture had failed itself, and art needed to throw off any kind of structure or formal approach and be random and chaotic, leading to the Dada movement he espoused.

“That makes sense in the time and is a worthy approach, but somewhat incomplete,” Baisden said.

“Joyce said, ‘No, you need to reach all the way to the roots of our culture and bring it all forward,’ but that’s highly rarified, and all too obscure for most people.

“Lenin said art is all well and good but it leaves us to compensate ourselves for the difficulties we don’t want to face; but his point was that we need to get out there and make things happen.”

Baisden said, “Stoppard is taking the three (views), putting them together as a triad and asking those questions and doing it with a lot of humor.”

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