In Tom Stoppard's Travesties, an unreliable narrator named Henry Carr sums up the themes of the play this way: "Firstly, you're either a revolutionary or you're not, and if you're not, you might as well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can't be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary." Art and politics may be the grand leitmotifs of the piece, but the weight of such ideas is somewhat blunted by the fact that this isn't serious commentary — it's a comedy of manners. Carr is similar to Stoppard's Rosencrantz (or Guildenstern, if you prefer), an insignificant sidekick type with a dodgy memory who, in this case, recounts meeting three intellectual heavyweights in Zurich, Switzerland, circa 1917: author James Joyce (in the midst of brooding over plans for Ulysses), dada poet Tristan Tzara (most notable for his cheekily titled poem "Proclamation Without Pretension"), and Bolshevik bellwether Vladimir Lenin. As Stoppard pilfers from Oscar Wilde, down to the addition of two lady characters named Cicely and Gwendolyn, the intricate fictions coalesce to point out the forces that beat the 20th century into submission — Marxism, modernism, and dadaism. Given the play's brouhaha about the roles of artists and politicians, some of the banter sounds suspect, which isn't altogether lost on Stoppard. As one of the characters quips, "It may be nonsense, but at least it’s clever nonsense."

Travesties opens tonight at 8 (and continues through Oct. 14) at the American Conservatory Theater (as the Geary Theater is rechristened tonight).
Sept. 14-Oct. 14

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