Bright as a boutonniere, Everyman’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a strutting peacock of a show that portrays the mores of Victorian society with a swinging trip down Carnaby Street.
Hip, groovy and where it’s at are words you don’t normally associate with the sublime aesthete Oscar Wilde, but director Joseph W. Ritsch eschews the macaron pastels and snooty hauteur of a typical production of this perfect comedy. Instead, there are pop art and 60s Mod flourishes everywhere from Daniel Ettinger’s day-glo, eye-popping sets to David Burdick’s costumes, awash in brocades, paisleys and Chinoiserie that would befit rock stars like Mick Jagger or Pete Townshend back in the day, not to mention the rich hippie trappings of their groupies.
The show’s loose liveliness gives such a modern zing to Wilde’s zingers they seem born anew and the cast is so game for the boppy, sexy sensibilities of the concept they would be right at home in a Peter Sellers comedy like The Party.
The Importance of Being Earnest skewers the stuffed-shirt sensibilities of the aristocracy and purports that the only way to survive such repression is to lead a double life and maintain a beautiful and amusing veneer while secretly doing and thinking whatever you like.
Wilde, a gay icon, is thought to have written Earnest as a satire on conventional love and marriage that discreetly champions pleasure and sexuality of all stripes. A married man with two children who also slept with males and had a scandalous love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas that got him jailed for “gross indecency,” Wilde certainly knew about keeping up appearances while pursuing the love that dare not speak its name.
Rather than preach, Wilde seduces and elates theater audiences with repartee of the highest sparkle, cunning plots and delicious characters that merrily jest at the restrictive roles of Victorian society. There’s coded language in Earnest only gay audiences would recognize (and some of the references are thoughtfully listed in the Everyman playbill), but anyone with an appreciation of wit and style will find much to admire in the production.
The plot of Earnest follows the unsmooth path to love for two men about town–Algernon Moncrieff (Danny Gavigan, who seems to be channeling both Oscar Wilde and Freddie Mercury in his fabulously preening portrayal) and his chum John Worthing (Jaysen Wright, plum-voiced and oh so proper).
Languishing in Algy’s royal blue and deep purple drawing room (with its flocked wallpaper, Greek male nude statues and white moderne furniture, it looks like a hipster’s idea of a den of iniquity), Worthing reveals his plan to marry Algy’s cousin, the absurdly charming Gwendolen Fairfax (Katie Kleiger, dimpled, clever and cheerfully willful).
Algy supports his friend, but also knows its a long shot, given his Aunt Augusta’s battleax ways. The aunt, Lady Bracknell (the splendid Bruce Randolph Nelson, buttressed in peacock blue frocks with turquoise bows and furbelows, all fluttering eyelashes and rolled vowels and moving at the stately pace of a majestic ocean liner) insists on propriety and decency in all matters, from marriage to tea sandwiches.
The Importance of Being Earnest
closes December 30, 2018
Details and tickets
After hearing the story of Worthing’s babyhood (he was a foundling nestled in a handbag in the cloakroom of Victoria Station), Lady Bracknell puts the grand dame kibosh on the engagement.
Not to mention, Worthing hasn’t been completely transparent with Gwendolen or anyone else, for that matter. He has a fun-loving alter ego, Earnest, when he is gadding about in London–this is the one Gwendolen has fallen in love with. At his country estate, he is the responsible and lordly John Worthing, to set an impeccable example for his young and comely ward, Cecily Cardew (Paige Hernandez, effervescent and frisky).
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The dandyish Algy decides to go “bunburying,” his term for mischevious larks in the country in disguise, to Worthing’s estate to stir up some trouble. Instead, he falls madly in love with Cecily, who thinks he is Worthing’s reprobate brother Earnest.
However, it is not only the men who resort to subterfuge. Cecily has a literary alter ego, a quite passionate and dramatic young woman who lives only in the pages of her diary, while Gwendolen hides her brains and determination under yards of creamy fabric and hats that perch like a planet on her downy head.
Mistaken identities, miffed maidens, unctuous aunties, long-lost relations–this is the stuff of classic comedy and Wilde handles the intricasies with lightness and ease. The gifted cast maintains the highborn buoyancy of the piece, notably Helen Hedman as the prissy and secretly desirous Miss Prism, a scene-stealing Carl Shurr as two hilariously different butlers and Wil Love as the courtly Rev. Chasuble. There are a couple of instances of flubbed lines, where the actors seem to struggle with the necessary quicksilver pace of the play, but not enough to seriously mar your enjoyment.
Everyman’s non pareil production takes many proper style and good breeding cues from Downton Abbey, only with a pop of the Swinging Sixties, where liberation and freedom reigned. You get the feeling Wilde himself would give it a hearty bravo.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde .Director: Joseph W. Ritsch. Featuring Danny Gavigan, Jaysen Wright, Carl Schurr, Bruce Randolph Nelson, Katie Kleiger, Helen Hedman, Paige Hernandez, Wil Love. Set Design: Daniel Ettinger. Lighting Design: Harolds Burgess II. Costume Design: David Burdick. Sound Design and Original Music Composition: Roc Lee. Wig Design: Denise O’Brien. Dialects: Gary Logan. Fight Choreography: Lewis Shaw. Dramaturgy: Lindsey R. Barr. Props Master: Jillian Mathews. Stage Manager: Cat Wallis. Produced by Everyman Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.