The Shakespeare Theatre has saved us from a dreadfully unbecoming winter of single digit desolation by bringing us Oscar Wilde’s self-described ‘trivial’ ode to language: The Importance Of Being Earnest. Think Downton Abbey with a lighter tone and no unpleasant deaths.
...a delight to the eye, ear, and mind.
The show, already a theatre classic, receives elevated status by the octogenarian presence of the inestimable actress Siân Phillips. Playing the overbearing, controlling Lady Bracknell, she changes what could have been a fun parlor room exchange into elegant artiface. Her countenance is swathed in a haughty gaze, especially as she dresses down our pair of ‘earnest’ bachelors. Let the pun begin…
These 2 gents, Jack Worthing, played by Gregory Wooddell, and Algernon Moncrief, played by Anthony Roach, are well-off dandies who both have ways to conveniently get away from whatever ails them–visiting either an old sick friend in the country or a brother in the city. Jack takes to calling himself Earnest in the city. Algernon later tries the same tact in the country. Algernon finds out that an inscription on a cigarette case means Jack has a mysterious ward named Cecily. After opining on life and society, Jack says he wishes to propose to Algernon’s cousin Gwendolyn, played by Vanessa Morosco. A hilariously successful proposal is followed by Lady Bracknell’s rejection, since Jack is a commoner. More importantly, he is only known as Earnest, a name which Gwen simply adores. “I could never love a Jack,” she intones. “Its oooonly a nickname for…John (disappointed sigh).”
Jack now goes to his country house to figuratively kill of his fictitious brother and get christened as Earnest, so his lady love will have him.
Intrigued by Jack having a niece, Algernon decides to visit Jack’s country house. He announces himself as Jack’s brother Earnest and he and Cecily, played by Katie Fabel, fall in love. The wonderful identity and language wordplay continues as the ladies believe they are both betrothed to the same Earnest. Further revelations and the discovery of a long lost governess Miss Prism, played by a fumbling Patricia Conolly, pave the way for a satisfied ending.
Memorable performances abound in this ensemble show. Wooddell displays fine derring-do and portrays Jack as a harried everyman. Roach is a fine physical actor with a taut acting style and brings a fun boyishness to his role. The ladies being courted, Morosco and Fabel, enjoy their moments and enrich the performance with good decisions onstage, especially Fabel’s winning part in explaining her diary entries to Algernon of their imaginary meeting.
For all the fine work of these, however, one always knows when Phillips is onstage. More of a vocal than a physical presence, her sideways glance or deft pause was a thrill to watch. A master course in how to play a scene.
The wonderful part of this show is to sit back and have your ears tickled. Oscar Wilde as an essayist, playwright, and man of letters was unmatched at his time and this type of work is rarely found is today’s realism-focused theatre offerings. Entendres and comments on society and the upper class are tossed around as easily as a bouquet. Or a knife–just depends on how you catch it. It is akin to a Seinfeld episode, with plotlines neatly intersecting at the end…but wittier.
Director Keith Baxter has shown a deft touch in pacing and letting full moments emerge on their own and letting the language float. The cast had a fine English sound without the artificial snootiness that sometimes is used. Voice coach Gary Logan let intention drive their cadence for a realistic lilt.
Theatre-goers have earnestly scratched their heads wondering what this show means. Wilde, quite an opinionated fellow, must have had an intent here, yet called it his “trivial play about trivial things.”
So what was he going after? Was it upper society pretension? Mistaken identity and acceptance? His subconscious coming-out play? (Which actually caused his professional and personal demise.)
A telling moment is Jack’s admission to Gwendolyn that “I’m afraid that for the first time in my life I am telling the truth.” Is it just that finally he “realized the vital importance of being Earnest’?
Adding to the visual experience is the scenic design by Simon Higlett and his team. Rich hardwoods and clever sliding doors lent functional fun to the drawing room and the garden scene was full of I-can’t-believe-they-are-not-real flowers and marble, all so nicely lit by Peter West. A nod to the costumes by Robert Perdziola: sharp but not overdone.
Small touches round out the enjoyable experience. From the whimsical music leading each act, to the detailed sets, to the exasperated courtiers Jack and Algernon stuffing their mouths with muffins, it is a delight to the eye, ear, and mind. Trivial? I daresay not!
Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, plus 2 intermissions.
The Importance of Being Ernest is presented by The Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St NW, Washington DC. From January 16 to March 2. For tickets or for other performances in the 2014 season, call 202 547-1122, or click here.