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Welcome Travesties 

Burning Coal twice lights the way, with the season's chewiest play and a controversial new comedy

Tom Stoppard's Travesties certainly qualifies as the chewiest play of the season, an intellectual four-course banquet that makes much of the fact that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin lived in Zurich, Switzerland during the same year as James Joyce and Dadaist Tristan Tzara.

In Stoppard's work, they all cross paths--where else?--but in the library. While Lenin researches a critique of capitalism that will help fuel the coming Russian Revolution, Joyce seems completely preoccupied with two books: the legend of Ulysses, and a Dublin phone directory from 1905. Meanwhile, a rather shifty-looking Tzara plots to improve upon the sonnets of Shakespeare--primarily with a pair of scissors and a hat.

An aging Henry Carr, a minor functionary at the British Consulate at the time, remembers them all with perfect clarity. At least, so he says. But even if he doesn't, by the time of our encounter, Carr's imagination has certainly gone swimming in a Joycean stream of consciousness and indulged in the freest of Dadaesque associations.

Since Travesties is actually a staging of Carr's memories, imagination and insights on his younger days, the potency of all three make for a compelling night of theater.

And that's before Oscar Wilde gets added to the mix. Stoppard finds irresistible the historical coincidence that links the names of Carr's sister and the town librarian to two characters in The Importance of Being Earnest. Particularly since Joyce actually directed that work while in Zurich--and cast the real Henry Carr in it.

In lesser hands, this intellectual overachievement would bewilder, bore and, worse yet, take all night: Pound for pound, Stoppard's script has more words in it than any production you'll likely see this year. Even more challenging, not all of those words make an awful lot of linear sense.

Go anyway. It's more than safe. In this Burning Coal Theatre Company production, director Rebecca Holderness seems to skate at times on synchronicity alone. Elsewhere, she revs the engine and runs the verbal gauntlet--with elan. Believe me: It's a lot harder than it looks.

David zum Brunnen vacillates between dither and dudgeon with gusto as our addled host, Henry Carr. To be honest, at first I missed the change in time between his opening narration to the audience, and his presence in memories that actually come decades before. With that transition clarified, zum Brunnen's finest hour comes in the ecstacy his character experiences when he is finally able to put into words what Joyce's prose and Tzara's art actually means to him. The moment recalls a quote from Nadja: beauty will be convulsive, or not at all.

On Morag Charlton's amazing set made up of old office equipment, spools of adding machine paper and hanging light bulbs, Jared Cosetlia drives a hard bargain as an ever-shrewd James Joyce. Meanwhile, as Tristan Tzara, a perpetually alarmed-looking Terry Milner ably navigates the absurdity of language, social norms and love. In Stoppard's script, David Dossey's given little work as Lenin, but he does it well.

As Cecily, the ice-hot Marxist librarian, Serena Ebhardt shushes with the best of them. In mid-show she indulges (with the risqué Sean Brosnahan as love interest Cecily) in Stoppard's musical satire, which overlays Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest upon the story in progress. All the while, Wade Ferguson Dansby III presides with implacable sang-froid as Carr's manservant, Bennett.

Holderness here is incontrovertibly at the top of her game. She's taken a largely impenetrable script in stride, and endowed it with what are, by now, her trademarks: psychologized tableaus that burn into the memory, and work to open up the world of the play on potent symbolic levels.

By the end, it's clear: Regional theater needs more Travesties like this.

Playwright Guillermo Reyes' voice takes on a mournful tone. "Poor Elián," he laments. "When he's 25 he's probably not going to appreciate this very much."

"This" would be Reyes' play, The Brat Monologues, in whose dystopic vision of the near-term future Elián Gonzalez--the Cuban child refugee forcibly repatriated back to the island nation in 2000--first becomes the new leader of Cuba, then its prophet, and then its god.

As Reyes looks down the road, that's pretty much the extent of the good news.

After UNC-G hosts the playwright with actor Andy Alcala Wednesday in Greensboro, Burning Coal will present a staged reading of the controversial work Saturday at noon at the Rialto Theater.

The Brat Monologues is an acerbic and funny set of 12 broad-ranging solos for one actor. It's also a comprehensive catalog of civilization's discontents, as the author rails against a number of likely targets: global warming, school shootings, the NRA, millennial messianism, religious fundamentalism, paparazzi, the drug war, Starbucks and McDonald's.

And that's only on the first page of his manuscript.

In a writing style that seems at times to fuse Ambrose Bierce with T. Coraghessan Boyle, Reyes channels an odd assortment of decidedly latter-day characters. The Russian son of Lee Harvey Oswald is now trying--and failing--to jumpstart a career in the United States as a standup comedian. A not-that-sweet little old Mormon lady leads a seminar on drugless responses to erectile dysfunction--which turns into the unlikely male equivalent of The Vagina Monologues.

And just when things get too jokey and over-topical, a spoiled, hyperintelligent 17-year-old New York City girl complains that she's having a hard time finding a savior. "If God is love, I'm pretty godless," she says. "I've struck out with God, and with guys too. I think they're connected."

"She's trying to find the voice of something bigger than the ordinary," Reyes notes. "She's trying to find a voice and language in which to ask the big questions. It's something not that easy to do in this culture."

The playwright claims he looks for redemption by delving into the spirituality of people, even if it's sometimes expressed as a twisted spirituality: "People are struggling to find where their home is," Reyes says, "even if they have to delve into their darkness."

It's a darkness, we learn, that comes soon enough. In one of the chillier monologues in The Brat Monologues, a cheap answering machine playback tape winds up one of the few surviving records of our civilization. The dead end of a piece of tape coincides more or less with the dead end of a civilization.

"I try not to think apocalyptically," Reyes says, "but after 9/11, I started wondering, what would be left of our civilization? I'm interested in how people look back on lost civilizations. How do you make out the Mayan hieroglyphics? There's so much speculation on the written materials, in figuring out what went wrong, what happened, how people think it worked."

After encountering most of the characters above, or others like the victim of a toxic event or a corporate suicide cult leader, it was interesting to hear Reyes say, "This is the second version of the work. The first one was a lot darker." In this version, though times are grim, all is not lost. The characters may not evade global warming, but they do finally conquer cultural and political correctness. And somewhere, in his cage, the last man plots the comeback of the human race: a radical notion for then--and, to some degree, right now. EndBlock

  • Burning Coal twice lights the way, with the season's chewiest play and a controversial new comedy.

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