When a play starts with a half-hour monologue from a frail old man who looks like a gentle breeze might turn him to dust, you begin to think this is going to be a long, long evening.
But after just a few moments, Marcus Truschinski got us into the rhythm, and off we went into the American Players Theatre production of Tom Stoppard's "Travesties," a story that had the ring of truth.
The old man is Henry Carr, a bureaucrat in the British consulate in Zurich. The story is his memory of the Swiss city in 1917, when it was home to James Joyce, in the midst of writing "Ulysses"; Lenin, who was on the eve of the Russian revolution; and Tristan Tzara, the father of the anti-art art form of Dada.
These three men's stories are told through the prism of Carr’s memories, and Truschinski switches between the old Carr and the young, vibrant man who is cast in a production of "The Importance of Being Earnest," the Oscar Wilde play being staged by Joyce.
Stoppard wrote a play that seems almost to be a sequel to the Wilde play, with similarities between the characters and the storylines in both plays. If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is. But trying to keep it straight in your mind is both unnecessary and futile.
It’s best to just sit back and let these characters tell you marvelous and very funny stories. The play is a comedy that touches on the familiar themes of Stoppard’s work: class struggles, censorship, patriotism, human rights and the power of words. At its heart is a lengthy and unresolved debate about the value and practice of art.
Director William Brown, who also directed the APT's production of "Earnest" this season, has created a vehicle that is both funny and serious, all at the same time. And the deep well of talent at APT takes everything Brown throws out and runs with it delightfully.
Truschinski leads the way as Carr (as well as a carbon of Algernon from "Earnest"). It seems hard to believe that he is in his 11th season at APT, but he has grown into an actor of immeasurable stature and delight. He has the kind of face that can tell a story without a single word being spoken, and he has matured into a serious force on stage.
But he is not alone in this one.
Matt Schwader plays Tzara with all the earnest guile you would expect from an art form pioneer. His determination to Dada-fy the world is so funny, you are in danger of missing some dialogue because you are laughing so hard. Not to be outdone in the earnestness department, Eric Parks delivers a Lenin full of the darkness that gave birth to a revolution. And Nate Burger gives Joyce the genius mixed with Irish longshoreman that makes his a character to idolize and laugh with.
The show is clearly about the four men, but the women in this production almost steal the stage.
Christina Panfilio plays Gwendolyn who is helping Joyce write his book, Kelsey Brennan plays the librarian who helps Lenin with his research and Carolyn Hoerdemann holds Lenin’s hand as his wife, Nadya.
Brown has created a complete production here, but he's also added moments that envelope the audience in joy and admiration. Four-part poetry makes an appearance, but the most striking repartee comes in a song sung by Panfilio and Brennan.
The original music by Andrew Hansen is on full display as the two women deliver a back and forth song that takes them from mere acquaintances to friends rivals in love and life. The song drew the loudest and most applause of the night, and deservedly so.
Truschinski and Brennan also brought the house down when she did a sexy striptease and the 1917 version of a lap dance that left Truschinski speechless, motionless and senseless.
Just like everything else in this production, that dance mixed sex with humor and with a serious example of humanity.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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