Oscar Wilde’s timeless comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, is, in virtually all respects, a perfect play. The script is full of comedy, mistaken identity (intentional and otherwise), tight banter and wit, and sharp plot twists. This particular production, presented on Oct. 12th by New York-based Aquila Theatre as part of N.C. State University Center Stage’s 2011-12 season, delivered a hefty dose of double casting and drag.
Director and production designer Desiree Sanchez took Wilde’s original cast of nine and pared it down to a cast of five, with most actors doing double — sometimes triple — duty. Another spin Sanchez took in approaching Earnest was to update the show to The Present, inherently conjuring up images of Jack Worthing and Gwendolen Fairfax exchanging information via Bluetooth technology over cellphones. This also allowed for costume designer Kristy Leigh Hall to bypass dressing the men in tailored, taut Victorian suits and the women in floor-length corseted dresses, by costuming the characters into more modern, occasionally questionable attire.
Desiree Sanchez’s work in creating the parlor room of Algernon Moncrieff and the lush garden of Jack’s manor house was largely successful, although the flighty dances performed during the scene change, which was another cast responsibility, were rather detached from the reality of the play, detracting from the work being presented.
As Jack Worthing, a.k.a. John, a.k.a. Earnest, Peter Gardiner gave a fairly solid performance as the privileged and head-over-heels in love protagonist, but he was outshined by the swagger and charm of Guy Oliver Watts’ Algernon Moncrieff, a.k.a. Algie, a.k.a. Earnest. Gardiner also played the butler Merriman, and Watts shared the role of Reverend Canon Chasuble with Kern Falconer.
Rebecca Reaney, the lone actor to play only one role, was loaded with sexual buoyancy, though she would have fared better with some more subtleties to ground her. Also, her connection with Watts was slightly unnerving, because Cecily is said to be but 18, and Watts reads well into his mid-to-late 40s.
Kern Falconer’s work in his two other roles — as Lane, Algernon’s manservant, and the formidable Lady Bracknell — was a commendable feat, although his executions lacked polish. Lane was just effeminate enough to make his entrance as Lady Bracknell lack the proper punch, and his paucity of social graces prevented his Lady Bracknell from being the show-stealing role she often is.
The standout performer of the ensemble was Rachael Barrington, who was lovely as Gwendolen Fairfax, but gave exceptionally strong work — in character and delivery — as the tutor Miss Prism.
The ensemble worked tightly together, allowing Wilde’s words to flow nicely, though a notch up in pace could have really helped drive the piece to a higher level — especially in the final moments of the show, where the script does get a little boggy with twists.
The Importance of Being Earnest stood the test of time; the audience’s laughter filled N.C. State University’s Stewart Theatre throughout the production. However, the Aquila Theatre’s modernization of Earnest lacked the cohesion for which I’m sure director Desiree Sanchez was striving. Aquila Theatre’s mission to breathe new life into classical work is hardly a new concept, although there are those who will harken to the belief that “if it ain’t broke … don’t fix it.”
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 11th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/10/the-importance-of-being-earnest-by-oscar-wilde-is-a-knee-slapping-comedy-about-leading-a-double-life/. SEE ALSO Feb. 2, 2003 Raleigh, NC CVNC (Classical Voice of North Carolina) preview and Feb. 12, 2003 review, both by Robert W. McDowell, click http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=652 and http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=653, respectively.
SHOW: http://www.ncsu.edu/centerstage/currentseason/aquilaearnest.html and http://aquilatheatre.com/touring/the-importance-of-being-earnest/.
The Play (background): http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/t/the-importance-of-being-earnest/ (Victoria and Albert Museum) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Importance_of_Being_Earnest (Wikipedia).
The Play (e-text): http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/844 (Project Gutenberg).
The Play (study guide): http://bard.org/education/studyguides/Importance/earnest.html (Utah Shakespeare Festival).
The Playwright: http://www.oscarwildesociety.co.uk/ (Oscar Wilde Society) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Wilde (Wikipedia).
Aquila Theatre: http://aquilatheatre.com/ (official website).
Jesse R. Gephart is a Raleigh, NC actor, director, and theater and music critic. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.
To read all of Jesse R. Gephart’s Triangle Theater Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/jesse-r-gephart/.