"Travesties": Tom Stoppard's brainy getaway at Marin Shakespeare

July brings an annual dry spell to San Francisco theater, with most of the city's companies on hiatus until the fall. If, however, you're one of those lucky city dwellers unafflicted by gephyrophobia — that is, the fear of crossing bridges — you'll find that your options multiply on the sunnier sides of the bay. Summer may never seem to arrive in San Francisco, but it continues to show up in the general vicinity, complete with outdoor theater good enough to mollify even your staunchest fears of suburbia.

I know San Franciscans who make annual pilgrimages to the vaunted Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland but who've never been to Cal Shakes over in Orinda. That's ridiculous. Sure, Ashland's shows will almost always be better. But Cal Shakes produces mostly great stuff, and it only requires a 30-minute drive to the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel rather than a six-hour slog up I-5.

And that's not your only option. A few weekends back, in search of open-air entertainment outside the city, I ventured up to sleepy San Rafael for the season opener at Marin Shakespeare. My main objective was to see, for the first time in years, a live production of Tom Stoppard's 1976 play, Travesties. But I was also eager to get out of San Francisco just ahead of the 6 o'clock fog and spend a July evening in a sun-soaked amphitheatre. For those of us who grew up in places where summer actually happens, it's natural to get the occasional craving for something so simple as a warm night.

William Elsman (left, with Alexandra Matthew) radiates loopy, infectious energy in Travesties.
Morgan Cowin
William Elsman (left, with Alexandra Matthew) radiates loopy, infectious energy in Travesties.

Details

Through Aug. 15 at Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, 1475 Grand (at Acacia), San Rafael. Tickets are $20-$35; call 499-4488 or visit www.marinshakespeare.org.

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Both the play and the setting gave me what I wanted. Marin Shakespeare's facilities are a good deal less slick than the brand-new complex at Cal Shakes, but both companies pursue fairly ambitious programs in idyllic surroundings. And with the possible exception of Marin Shakespeare's decision to stage The Taming of the Shrew aboard a pirate ship, neither company shows much sign of pandering to a lazy summertime crowd.

Consider Travesties. The play is fiendishly difficult even by Stoppard's standards. It indulges in some of the sprightliest intellectual gamesmanship this side of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. It requires smart and playful actors who not only understand the text but who can have fun with it. And it needs a director who can pace the action so that the audience doesn't grow numb from the constant torrent of Stoppard's words. Marin Shakespeare's production may not work on all levels all the time, but it works. That's no small thing when you consider that it's a madcap farce about bolshevism, war, and the nature of art.

Just explaining the storyline is challenge enough. In 1917, Zurich was home to three very different revolutionaries: James Joyce (Lucas McClure), Vladimir Lenin (Stephen Klum), and central Dada figure Tristan Tzara (Darren Bridgett). That may sound like a complicated setup, but Stoppard doesn't leave it at that. He considers these three figures from the vantage point of the 1960s, through the cloudy memory of an elderly man named Henry Carr (William Elsman), a onetime English consular official who served in Zurich during World War I.

Carr was, in fact, a real person, and during his time in Switzerland he starred in a production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest — a production directed by none other than Joyce. (Carr and Joyce had a falling out during that production, resulting in Carr's appearance as a drunken sailor in the Circe episode of Ulysses.) In Travesties, Stoppard uses Wilde's play as a kind of anchor, adapting the plot of Earnest to his gallery of revolutionaries, all the while reminding us that we're getting our information from an extremely unreliable narrator. "Constant digression [is] the saving grace of senile reminiscence," Carr tells us, underscoring Stoppard's larger point that history is a kind of shared senility.

Any production of Travesties hinges on the actor playing Carr, and Elsman is up to the task. He doesn't quite nail the elderly version of the character, but he radiates a loopy, infectious energy as the younger Carr. He's a complete pleasure to watch. No one else in the cast quite matches him, but no one is a disgrace, either — this is a tight ensemble, and they're clearly having a ball.

The show loses a bit of steam in the second act. Yet throughout its nearly three-hour run time — a long spell for a comedy — I noticed no restlessness from the crowd. (For a production requiring people to sit on wooden benches, with or without foam cushions, that's saying something.) Much of the credit goes to director Robert Currier, who stages the action with as much vigor and wit as Stoppard's text demands. He's helped tremendously by Mark Robinson's playful set, which includes four different staircases on wheels — a constantly shifting landscape that's just right for a mind-bending farce.

The production isn't perfect. You're not likely to see anything that will haunt your dreams. You are, however, liable to have a ridiculous amount of fun, especially if you're anything resembling a theater geek. And you can't help but admire the company's willingness to tackle such a difficult piece. "It may be nonsense," Carr acknowledges to Tzara, "but at least it is clever nonsense." Better yet, it's clever nonsense perfectly suited to a late-summer evening in the North Bay, with not a wisp of fog in sight.

 
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