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Who else but award-winning Czech-born British playwright Tom Stoppard would build a rib-tickling farce about the place of art in time of revolution around the historical character of a minor British consular official and amateur actor stationed in Zürich, Switzerland in 1917, during World War I?
In the current Burning Coal Theatre Company production of Travesties, Stoppard uses the real-life participation of Henry Carr (1894-1962) in an unauthorized production of world-famous Irish wit, poet, and playwright Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest - and the simultaneous presence in Zurich of three giants of early 20th century literature, political thought, and art-as a springboard for a fast-paced comedy of ideas.
What would happen, Stoppard wonders, if Carr and his cohorts in drama collide with Irish novelist in exile James Joyce (1882-1941), Russian revolutionary in exile Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924), and Romanian-born French poet and essay writer Tristan Tzara (1896-1963)? (Joyce stretched the English language and the stream-of-consciousness writing technique to its limits-and beyond-in his literary masterpieces Ulysses  and Finnegans Wake . Lenin [nee Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov] founded the Russian Communist Party [Bolsheviks], led the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and served as the first head of the newly formed Soviet Union from 1917 until his death in 1924. In the arts, Tzara is best known as the founder of the nihilistic revolutionary "Dada" movement.)
To bring these colorful characters fully to life, Burning Coal has brought back innovative and resourceful New York director Rebecca Holderness, whose demonstrated considerable theatrical magic during previous productions of Love's Labours Lost and Einstein's Dreams that landed on Triangle critics' 10-best lists.
"Travesties is a fantastic, mind-warping comedy," claims Holderness. "A real farce. Doors slamming, the butler leering, one-liners and zingers flying. Bloomers dropping. It's the real thing, but written not as a sitcom but as an intellectual romp through the 20th century.
"Also," she admits, "I don't completely understand it. I want to direct it because I want to find out what it is about."
Holderness adds, "Stoppard is clearly one of the geniuses of our time. A great wordsmith. A great thinker. He is completely self-educated. He didn't spend a minute in college, or, as the British say, 'at university.'"
Stoppard, who is famous for his unexpected plot twists and ingenious wordplay, won a trio of best-play Tony Awards for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Travesties, and The Real Thing, which debuted in 1966, 1974, and 1982, respectively. An Academy Award nominee for Brazil (1985), Stoppard also won the best-original-screenplay Oscar for Shakespeare in Love (1998).
The Royal Shakespeare Company's 1974 world-premiere production of Travesties won a host of awards and raves from the critics.
"The effect of Travesties ... is exhilarating!" wrote Frank Marcus of The Sunday Telegraph. "It is nothing short of miraculous ... brilliant and replete with limericks, puns, word play, contradiction and paradoxes."
Herbert Kretzmer of the Daily Express agreed. "Stoppard has come up with another dazzling display of theatrical sleight-of-mind that will have London eating out of his hand," Kretzmer reported. "The world premiere was an event to excite the intelligence."
Michael Billington of The Guardian called Travesties "Exuberant and freewheeling!" and characterized the play as a "A dazzling pyrotechnical feat that combines Wildean pastiche, political history, artistic debate, spook-reminiscence, and song-and-dance in marvelously judicious proportion. It radiates sheer intellectual joie de vivre."
Burning Coal guest director Rebecca Holderness says, "I feel like Travesties is a great puzzle, or riddle. If I keep working on it long enough, I'll find some answers!" she quips.
Holderness notes, "[D]uring World War I in Zürich, there was quite a little colony of artists and politicians, kind of hiding out. James Joyce (Jared Coseglia) was there. Lenin (David Dossey). Tristan Tzara (Terry Milner), who helped found the Dada movement. And a British consular official named Henry Carr (David zum Brunnen). Carr, of course, had not much bearing on the century to come, but the others certainly did."
In real life, Holderness says, "Joyce, Tzara and Carr were all involved in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest …. Stoppard started with that point, and goes on to create a fantastic comedy that asks the question 'What is the place of the artist during war time?' It is, unfortunately, a question that we seem to need to keep asking ourselves over and over and over.
"The other characters," Holderness says, "include two women straight out of Earnest, Gwendolyn (Sean Brosnahan in drag) and Cecily (Serena Ebhardt); Lenin's wife, Nadya (Gabrieal Griego); and a wisecracking butler, Bennett (Wade Dansby). We've added a chorus of young men (Thaddeas Edwards and Russell Beaman) who hang around and comment on the play in various musical and visual ways."
Travesties presents several major challenges to director Rebecca Holderness and her creative team of technical director Dennis Johnson, set and properties designer Morag Charlton, lighting designer Matthew Adelson, costume designer Shambhavi Kaul, music director Julie Florin, and sound designer Rick Labach.
"Travesties," Holderness emphasizes, "has to be perfectly clear in order to be understood, yet it is a farce, which means it also has to be lightning quick or it will sit there like Jell-O. The great challenge is finding that balance.
"Also, Dadaism is a great tool that Stoppard uses-thematically a tool-and Dadaism is chaos. In fact, the scientific cohort of Dada, which is an artistic idea, was Chaos. Yet the place has to be precise, pristine, as clear and as sharp as a pin. How to do that while visually embodying the ideas of Dada? That's the challenge for all of us."
Rebecca Holderness' production of Travesties will be performed in period costumes. She says the set is "a big open platform with two big doors upstage center. Around it is the debris of the 20th century." The lighting, she adds, will be "stark and white and then, suddenly, colorful as a carousel."
Holderness adds, "Since the play begins in Henry Carr's mind in 1970 and jumps back to the First World War, we decided to use as a visual and philosophical metaphor the 'Fluxus' art movement from the late 1960s. Fluxus grew from Dada, but had the vantage point of hindsight in terms of its viewpoint on life in the 20th century. It is very much an aesthetic of the 1960s, and also has a kind of chaos at its core.
"I think Fluxus is a little more hopeful than Dada, though," says Holderness, "because it sees a framework within which we exist and suggests that within that framework, mankind has made a shambles. Dadaists didn't even believe in the framework. They thought everything was random."
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Travesties Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 3-5, 10-12, and 17-19, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 6, 13, and 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), except Oct. 6 "Pay-What-You-Can" performance. (NOTE: Oct. 5 will be audio described for the visually impaired.) 919/388-0066. http://www.burningcoal.org/Travesties%20Page.htm