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Travesties - About Schmitz

Author: Darryn King
Monday, March 16, 2009

3D’s Darryn King spoke to in-demand actor Toby Schmitz – known in some circles as The Schmitz – about meeting his match in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, currently performing at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre.

Last year, actor-playwright Toby Schmitz was, in his own words, a pig in shit, directing a production of Neil LaBute’s This Is How It Goes, playing two characters in Tony McNamara’s The Great, performing under the direction of friend Brendan Cowell in Nina Raine’s Rabbit, and taking the title role in the season sell-out of Ruben Guthrie, also written by Cowell and directed by Wayne Blair.

Schmitz’s performances have been dominating Sydney stages for a while now, but these particular productions were also a great showcase for his knack for comedy – whether barking out one of Cowell’s coke-fuelled monologues, hamming it up as a Russian monarch of Black Adder proportions, or simply giving the cuss words an extra kick for the benefit of Sydney Theatre Company matinee audiences.

“It started as a way to make the kids in the classroom laugh – and to stop getting beaten up,” Schmitz says of his comic flair. “And in university I just threw myself into university revues, as opposed to attending lectures. It was a heady time to be in UWA, with great comics like Tim Minchin there. I think I had my first joint or something and the next day I signed up to do stand-up comedy.”

But then Schmitz got into NIDA, where – except for the odd Moliere play – the laughs were systematically exorcised. “I had quite a run of doing angsty stuff for five years – a lot of ‘serious young man’.”

It wasn’t until Brendan Cowell’s Self-Esteem that Schmitz got to play the clown again, playing Chad, the ‘self-help cyborg’. “It was a discovery for some people that I could actually get laughs – although it was my bread and butter before I got to Sydney. But it’s nice to be able to flex that muscle recently.”

Now Schmitz is taking on the inimitable Tom Stoppard and his 1973 play Travesties. It’s the story of a semi-imagined gathering of James Joyce, Lenin and Tristin Tzara in Zurich, as told by historical nullity Henry Carr (played by Wharf Revue star Jonathan Biggins) – with a tip of the porkpie hat to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Even Lenin gets some corker gags, Schmitz says.

“It peppers high comedy with the lowest farce – people coming through the wrong door at the wrong time. And of course it’s so complex that you can’t go straight to the gags, you’ve got to work out what it all means, and explore Dadaism, bolshevism, all these ‘isms’ before you can even get to the monocle falling out of the eye gag, which I’ve got three of.”

Schmitz plays Tristin Tzara, one of the principal forces behind the early Dadaist movement. “Without a doubt he’s a provocateur and a tease and a dandy, and as we know now, was just a slightly jumped-up nihilist. He’s standing on slightly thinner ice as far as ideology goes – that’s quite fun – and all those early Dadaists were showmen, which really sets him up for quite a few gags. Whereas Lenin and Joyce were tucked away in libraries, Tzara was on the corner in the bar making a nuisance of himself.”

As usual with Stoppard, the play is an intellectual scavenger hunt and a test of verbal gymnastics – familiarity with Ulysses, The Importance of Being Earnest, the Great War and the October Revolution, as well as rudimentary German, French, Russian will come in handy – but no audience member will be left completely in the dark. “As far as I can tell, everything has its little explanation,” Schmitz says. “My knowledge of German, French and Latin is zero, and I’m getting it. Stoppard’s very clever in that way: you don’t have to know it, but if you do it will be doubly funny.”

After Travesties, Schmitz goes straight into the revival of Ruben Guthrie, moving upstairs at the Belvoir, but the rest of the year is relatively free for now. “I’ve only got a couple of months’ work left and then I’m an unemployed actor again. Please get it in the 3D classifieds.”

WHAT: Travesties
WHERE: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
WHEN: Until Saturday 25 April