BWW Reviews: Carnival of Culture Tantalizes Audiences in TRAVESTIES
How does someone begin to describe Tom Stoppard's triple award winning play Travesties staged at American Players Theatre this August? Spring Green's indoor Touchstone Theatre hosts the devilish, deliriously funny production directed by the renowned William Brown that rotates the ambiance of a carnival, an ordinary home or library, a political convention, an Oscar Wilde play and war zones. Where scenes quickly shift between poignant drama and an evening at Chippendale's completely at Stoppard's discretion to tantalize the audience.
Travesties' (which defined means a distortion, misrepresentation, parody, perversion or poor substitution) genius in Stoppard's intelligent script comingles the meetings of author James Joyce (Nate Burger), politician Vladimir Lenin (Eric Parks) and poet, founder of Dada, Tristan Tzara (Matt Schwader) during 1917 in war neutral Switzerland. A place forming the crossroads of the 20th century, when the casualties of World War I were mounting by the millions.
Also in Zurich, a British consulate named Henry Carr was then asked by James Joyce to perform the lead in a benefit performance of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, in the role of Algernon Moncrieff. The ensuing action throughout the play mirrors both Wilde's Earnest and Carr's recollections on these events more than 50 years in the past, melded with actual events from 1917.
APT's actors from this summer's previous The Importance of Being Earnest reprise their roles with delicious, marvelous results. Marcus Truschinski conjures Henry Carr, who accepts the leading role in Joyce's production as Algernon. Although in Stoppard's play, Truschinski transforms his character several times, changing between the young Carr, the character Algernon, and the wizened version of Henry who observes through muddled memory past events from 1917 to produce incredibly humorous observations.
When Carr fails to remember "the other one," Jack, or John Worthing from Earnest, Matt Schwader again comes alive in Travesties playing the Dada poet Tristan Tzara in 1917. A time when Tzara's Dada modern art movement represented an essential belief that art might be considered non-art, and words stood for the opposite of what they actually mean, distortions and misrepresentations. Schwader carries this role with Truschinski, paired superbly again as in APT's previous Earnest.
Cristina Panfilio returns as the astute Gwendolen, as does Kelsey Brennan in the stunning role of Cecily, both revolutionary thinkers in 1917 while romanced by the same men as in Wilde's Earnest. They dance, sing and strip with aching believability, an entertaining carnival of accomplishments for any two actresses. The four complement a gifted supporting cast that includes Jeb Burris's butler to Algernon, Bennet, another of Stoppard's class parodies in his play.
Stoppard's Tony Award winning play demands this cast, a cast capable of Tony Award winning performances in every technique, to match his play's linguistic, poetic and theatrical pinnacles, which APT delivers with disarming assurance. This includes incorporating the genius, satire and wit of Stoppard's words while commenting on abstract art, capitalism, class structure, Gilbert and Sullivan, Shakespeare, Ulysses, the Industrial Revolution, Oscar Wilde throughout this keep one's ears open, eyes affixed on the stage, enthralling performance.
Audience members who were fortunate to see APT's Earnest will draw from their past experience, including remembering the abstract art in Algernon's drawing room has been transformed by Scenic Designer Nathan Stuber into a stylish library for Travesties. In Earnest, the abstract art represented Wilde's nonsensical nothings done with earnest, though in Travesties, maybe this nonsense, "could be or not be considered clever nonsense." Yet, these exact concepts reshaped artistic culture in the 20th century, inviting abstraction, cubism, futurism and surrealism into the world, whether as Lenin believes, one gains any pleasure from this at all.
Perhaps two of the most poignant moments in the performance occur when Tzara cuts up Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 to declare his love for Gwendolen, in true Dada style. At first affronted by this heresy, Gwendolen begins to pull the words, one at a time, from the inside of a bowler hat and rearrange them as Tzara insists. Shakespeare's eloquent words continually create beauty with meaning, in a whole new poem, perhaps a foreshadowing of how the 20th century and these geniuses rearranged the cultural context, and a microcosm of Stoppard's Travesties.
Lenin eventually destroyed or prohibited any non-political literature from being published in Russia after the revolution, and yet near the final scenes Lenin can be moved to tears by a Beethoven concerto. "This creates such beauty he says....with meaning."
So does APT's beautifully conceived and performed Travesties, together with the sincere wish APT might add additional performances. Perhaps so more people could consider these cultural travesties Stoppard refers to that continue in the 21st century almost 100 years later, especially the war deaths. Or that despite the horrible perversions that culture gives to society, such as the beheading of an American journalist, the ultimate travesty would be refusing to see the beauty and wonder the world still offers if one rearranges their perspective visions.