Insurgent idealisms clash and echo in “Caesar and Dada,” the frolicsome, piquantly brainy new play by Allyson Currin receiving its world premiere from WSC Avant Bard. And it’s not just in the conversations of the characters — members of a fractious acting troupe in post-World War I Zurich — that revolutionary notions reverberate and refract. There’s also the neon-lit vaudeville number featuring the hoofin’ scenic designer.
Alfred (Mario Baldessari) is a frustrated creator of sets for Theatre for Truth, a company of expatriate thespians led by the imperious Zurich director Franz Lichter (Sun King Davis). Franz is a proponent of realism on stage. By contrast, Alfred has, like other members of the troupe, been caught up in the artistic ferment that is swirling through Europe — a ferment that is all the more powerful because the horrors of trench warfare have upended the world’s old certainties. Rather than espousing naturalism, Alfred favors Expressionism— the aesthetic that prioritizes an artist’s subjective truths over external reality. “He wants it to be a photograph. . . . I want it to be a poem,” Alfred grouses, describing his disagreement with Franz over the style of a set for “Julius Caesar.”
That complaint — tossed off in a chat between Alfred and Lily (Mundy Spears), a zealous American actress — typifies the intellectual but enjoyably barbed and gossipy dialogue that Currin’s characters exchange over cafe tables, during rehearsals and in bickering backstage confabs. (“You are American; you are predictable; and, worse than that, you are an optimist!” Franz gripes to Lily.)
But dialogue isn’t the sole medium for conveying battling ideas in “Caesar and Dada,” which has been directed with shrewd playfulness by Lee Mikeska Gardner. (Scenic designer Steven T. Royal Jr. co-directs.) Eccentric dreamlike interludes periodically interrupt the play’s naturalistic scenes — a mode shift that parallels the disruptive incursions of avant-garde movements into Franz’s tradition-honed artistic world.
One particularly diverting dream-style sequence has the normally stolid Alfred donning a straw boater to do soft-shoe on a stage bathed in red and pulsating yellow light, while a somber voiceover intones words such as “authentic,” “literal” and “true.” It’s a fantasy sequence, but it also conveys the conflict between Alfred’s expressionistic yearnings and the tyranny of Franz’s realism. Other hallucinatory interludes include a flamboyant symbolist-style fencing match between Franz and Dominic (Joe Feldman), an excitable actor who is initially a fan of symbolism (a poetic and esoteric backlash against naturalism).
Soon the fickle Dominic has traded symbolism for Zurich-nurtured dadaism— the movement that was an anarchic revolt against logic and time-tested artistic premises. In a couple of zany mini-lectures, illustrated with amusing, anachronistic projections (including renderings of a surrealist rabbit and a Playboy bunny), Dominic expounds on dadaist theory.
This is heady stuff, and Currin ups the smarts quotient by layering her motifs: The dadaist rebellion against bourgeois art echoes the rebellious feelings that Alfred and his colleagues harbor against Franz, which in turn echo the insurgency depicted in “Julius Caesar.” Designer Royal’s spare, incisive scenery enters the thematic fray, too: Throughout the first act, an enormous mirror slants above the actors, so that we see everything from two angles — the front and from above. This setup allows us, in some sense, to experience the warring perspectives endemic to the art world and to the geopolitics of World War I.
Sometimes the play’s cerebral intricacies feel a little slogging and repetitive. And the play suffers from other weaknesses, too, especially in its second half: An intriguing revelation about Lily goes nowhere; the character of Tristan (Andrew Ferlo), an actor whose war service has left him shell-shocked, surges to the fore in a manner that hasn’t been wholly prepared for; and the story’s ending is unsatisfyingly abrupt. Local playwright Currin will surely be able to address these flaws in another draft.
In any case, there’s more to admire than to criticize in “Caesar and Dada,” with its exuberant historical allusions and lively, humorous evocations of character. The stylized comic tone of the performances and Lynly Saunders’s elegant, off-white Edwardian costumes add further buoyancy. All in all, it’s diverting highbrow fare — what you might get if you took a freshman course on early 20th-century aesthetics and crossbred it with the best parts of “Smash.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Allyson Currin. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner; co-direction and scenic design, Steven T. Royal Jr.; lighting, Colin Dieck; sound, Kenny Neal; fight choreography, Robb Hunter; projection design, Tewodross Melchishua; props design/fight assistant, Kristen Pilgrim; dialect coach, Melissa Flaim. With Megan Dominy. About 2 hours and 20 minutes. Through July 14 at the Callan Theatre at Catholic University, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE. Visit www.wscavantbard.org.