Cristina Panfilio, Nate Burger and Matt Schwader in American Players Theatre's Travesties
Oscar Wilde dubbed The Importance of Being Earnest "a trivial comedy for serious people." I'm not sure that descriptor would fit Tom Stoppard's 1974 play Travesties, even though it riffs on Wilde in many ways, from reprising some of Wilde's characters to sharing his glee with wordplay and clever aphorisms. Both are playing this summer at Spring Green's American Players Theatre. I caught the opening-night performance of Travesties (through Oct. 3) in the indoor Touchstone Theatre.
Stoppard's play is a fascinating, daring creation that -- while paying great homage to Wilde -- ultimately goes someplace deeper, with higher stakes. His humor is more anarchic, something that director William Brown (who also directs APT's current ) successfully plays to the hilt.
Stoppard throws Wilde's characters into a volatile mix of history, jumbled memory and fantasy. Set in Zurich in 1917 -- an island of neutrality in the midst of World War I's carnage -- Travesties springs from the memories of one Henry Carr, a minor official in the British consulate all those years ago.
Amazingly, Zurich during the First World War was home to three revolutionary figures simultaneously: author James Joyce, Dadaist Tristan Tzara, and Lenin. Joyce was part of a troupe producing English-language theater, including Earnest, in which the real-life Carr played the lead role of Algernon. (A perfectly cast Marcus Truschinski plays Algernon in APT's Earnest, and Carr in Travesties.)
Though it's not necessary for enjoying this play, having seen Earnest helps; you'll pick up more of the humor found in the way Stoppard repeats or upends elements of Wilde. And part of the fun of APT's repertory setup is seeing actors play the same roles in both plays. For example, Cristina Panfilio returns as Gwendolen, and Kelsey Brennan as Cecily.
Travesties resists a tidy synopsis, and that is to its credit. It's a slippery thing, blurring the lines that separate historical figures, fictional characters, giddy silliness and serious thoughts on the role of art and why war is waged. Can art be revolutionary, or is it just bourgeois nonsense? Does war defend our loftiest ideals, or is it the brutal endpoint of "capitalism with the gloves off"?
Director Brown -- who adds a few over-the-top flourishes of his own to the mix -- leads an ensemble that is up to the challenge of a demanding script. APT core company member Matt Schwader proves to be a brilliant choice to play Tzara, the rebellious leader of an "anti-art" movement. Gutsy and inventive, he gives a fantastic performance.
Reprising their Earnest roles, Panfilio and Brennan are also terrific. While Cecily grates a bit in Earnest as a shallow ingénue, it's fun to watch her here as a Cecily with revolutionary ideals. A comedic song featuring Cecily and Gwendolen is a high point of the show.
If the play has a wobbly spot, it's the inclusion of Lenin and his wife, Nadya. They are the least integrated into the script, and Eric Parks' portrayal of Lenin suffers from an inconsistent accent. Overall, though, APT shines in bringing this dizzying mashup to life.