Travesties (April 3, 2015)

Meg Warner, Greg Matthew Anderson and Jeff Cummings
Meg Warner, Greg Matthew Anderson and Jeff Cummings

Oh boy. Ok. Here we go.

Anyone who’s read my reviews of Remy Bummpo productions over the years understands I am a major fan. In an April 2014 critique of the company’s “Our Class,” I referred to Remy as “doing some of the finest work in mid-budget Chicago theater.” Without exception, I have found the work to be by turns entertaining, meaningful, boisterous and intelligent.

I suppose the streak had to end, and indeed it has with Remy Bummpo’s final production of its 18th season, “Travesties.” Directed by the company’s Producing Artistic Director Nick Sandys, this confused and rambling construction’s deficiencies are rooted in the source material.

In the production’s press pieces, Sandys describes “Travesties” as such: “Stoppard out-Wildes Wilde, out-Joyces Joyce and builds a surrealist comedy from the wreckage… You may want to familiarize yourself with ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’ If you enjoy that play, you’ll enjoy this one.”

This critic begs to differ. For while I delight in the celebration of absurdity, the ironic superficiality and the lampoon of late 19th Century drawing room manners that is “Earnest,” my companion for the evening and I found “Travesties” to be the navel gazing work of a playwright in love with his own intellectualism. It’s a wink-wink, nod to the post-modern cultural elite, without the self-awareness that makes Wilde’s accessible language play so universally appealing.

From Sandys’ fundamental misread of the similarities between Stoppard and Wilde, it stands to reason that further misunderstandings fall across the Greenhouse Theater Center upstairs stage like so many dominoes. The press release observes, “Sandys believes that the everyman, in this case a British civil servant named Henry Carr, is where audiences will most see themselves in this play.”

Apparently Sandys is counting on audiences to be comprised of upper middle class, senile dandys with a penchant for stretching the truth. Because I know I couldn’t relate to the story of WWI-era intellectual expatriates flopping around Switzerland arguing, and I didn’t want to. In fact, though I heard other critics exiting the theater breathlessly wondering at the production’s “brilliance,” I challenge them to tell me what happened during the first 15 minutes of the performance. Because for all my education, admiration of Wilde and love of absurdist work, I can’t say. If I haven’t been clear, this is a major flaw smacking of the alienating modernist aesthetics of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, rather than Oscar Wilde.

The plot, such as can be followed, goes like this: “Toss together James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin and Dadist poet Tristan Tzara in Zurich in 1917… throw in limericks and lyrics and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ then shred the whole mélange through the mind of an aging British civil servant.”

There are too many ideas here, and despite the really fine work of the talented cast combined with terrific Scenic Design by Joe Schermoly, the overstuffing is obvious and disorienting. Greg Matthew Anderson (Tzara) with his chiseled features, mastery of European accents and deft comedic timing, continues to be one the most delightful performers on the Chicago theater scene. He deserves higher quality material.

I’m sorry but I really can’t let Sandys off the hook here. As an Artistic Director, he has put his stamp of approval on so many wonderful Remy Bumppo offerings. I’ve also enjoyed him as a stage performer in work such as late December 2013’s “An Inspector Calls.” I am a genuine admirer and thus feel both bound and disappointed to pronounce “Travesties,” …well a travesty. It’s a haughty DOA stinker. Remy Bummpo is much better than this. I look forward to a 19th season redemption next fall.

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