The current Burning Coal Theatre Company production of Travesties by Tom Stoppard is Stoppard — and Burning Coal — at its best. The award-winning Czech-born British playwright, most famous for his wicked wordplay and ingenious plot twists, is one of the true geniuses of contemporary theater, and Travesties may well be his masterpiece.
Guest director Rebecca Holderness brilliantly exploits the comic and dramatic possibilities of a dazzling array of historical figures and fictional personalities that Stoppard incorporates into the typically intricate twists and turns of a clever plot in which a minor historical episode serves as a springboard for Stoppard’s zany fast-paced comedy of ideas about the place of art and literature in a time of world war and revolution.
Stoppard takes Henry Carr (1894-1962), a minor British consular official and amateur actor stationed in Zürich, Switzerland in 1917, and he puts Carr at the center of an unauthorized production of Irish dramatist and world-famous wit Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The simultaneous presence in Zürich of three giants of 20th century literature, politics, and art — Irish novelist James Joyce (1882-1941), Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924), and Romanian-born French founder of the nihilistic “Dada” movement Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) — gives Stoppard the opportunity to interweave contact with these colorful characters into Carr’s, perhaps, senile reminiscences of his exciting youthful adventures in neutral Switzerland during World War I.
Director Rebecca Holderness superbly navigates the myriad twists and turns of Stoppard’s intricate plot, but she also gets crisp characterizations from each member of her cast.
David zum Brunnen is a delight as Carr the stuffy bureaucrat caught up in wartime intrigue but simultaneously in love with the local librarian, and Wade Ferguson Dansby 3 is hilarious as Carr’s imperious butler Bennett. David Dossey and Gabrieal Griego give brooding performances as increasingly frustrated Russian revolutionary in exile Vladimir Lenin and his ever-supportive wife, Nadya. Terry Milner royally entertains the audience with his outrageous antics as Tzara, but Jared Coseglia steals the show with his thick Irish brogue and flamboyant impersonation of Joyce.
Serena Ebhardt is wonderful (as usual) as a sexy librarian named Cecily, and Sean Brosnahan (in drag) gives an impish impersonation of a lively lass named Gwendolyn. Russell Beaman and Thaddeus Edwards provide a sort of chorus, helping Holderness incorporate elements of a Dada descendant — the Fluxus art movement of the late 1960s — into the production.
Burning Coal Theatre Company’s crowd-pleasing presentation of Travesties also features splendid turn-of-the-century scenery and properties designed by Morag Charlton, versatile lighting designed by Matthew Adelson, a handsome wardrobe of period costumes designed by Shambhavi Kaul, and an intricate sound design devised by Rick LaBach.
With its bold and imaginative directorial vision and crackerjack characterizations, Travesties is sure to be on many critics’ 10-best lists. Don’t miss it!
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Travesties Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 17-19, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 20, at 2 p.m. in the Kennedy Theatre in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 South St., Raleigh. $15 ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active military personnel). 919/388-0066. http://www.burningcoal.org/Travesties%20Page.htm.