Saturday, January 28, 2012

Earnest Is Seriously Funny

by James E. Trainor III

TCR - Jack and Algernon are two friends who are quickly learning that they have more in common than they suspected. Jack has slipped up and allowed Algernon to discover his imaginary brother Earnest, whom he uses as an excuse to go to the city whenever he likes. Algernon has decided to reveal to Jack the secret of his fictional friend Bunbury, whom he uses as a pretext to visit the country on a moment's notice. Thess little secrets would probably remain between the two men if matters of the heart weren't complicating things: Jack is attempting to court Algernon's cousin Gwendolen in the city, and Algernon visits the country in order to woo Jack's ward Cecily.

It is with this cleverly convoluted setup that Oscar Wilde begins his most successful play — a witty, biting portrayal of late Victorian society entitled The Importance of Being Earnest. TCR's production opened last night, under the direction of Leslie Charipar.

The text is full of the clever one-liners for which Wilde is known, but at the same it is paced quite well and plotted precisely. In order to manage their marriages, Jack and Algernon must not only clear up the issue of their false identities, but they must also contend with Lady Bracknell, the draconian guardian of Victorian mores. Bracknell is a wonderful creation: sharp-tongued, cynical, and maddeningly rational in defense of her irrational ideals. As a piece of satire, she hits the nail on the head and is instantly familiar. "She is a monster, without being a myth, which is rather unfair,' says Jack.

Bracknell's rigid social rules are ridiculous: invalids must hurry up and decide whether or not they're going to die, an orphan can be excused losing one parent but certainly not two, and marriage is far too important an institution to be left up to the two young people involved in it.

The principals inhabit this world of hypocrisy and cynicism as well. Jack and Algernon are excessively genial until they start courting each others' family members, and Cecily and Gwendelon express boundless affection for each other, while they sublimate their rage into a bitter dispute over the tea setting. It is all done in a style of high farce that is great fun.

Charipar understands the vicious social environment of the play quite well, and her casting and staging underline the power struggles and create tension, energy, and a lot of laughter. Scott Olinger's set is open, airy, and picturesque. It's very effective, though the change from city to country does seem to go on a bit. Joni Sackett's costumes and Derek Easton's lighting create a pleasant, sophisticated environment for these entertaining but ultimately petty characters. Care is taken to create a physical world for the actors to bring to life. One image near the end stands out as an example of this unity of elements: Jack, who is preparing to out Algernon, turns from the window, trots smugly down the stairs, dapper in his white coat and tails, and reveals the worst of Algernon's ghastly behavior: he ate all the muffins.

It is satire at its best -- sharply critical and gleefully unapologetic -- and the company delivers it well. Aaron Murphy plays Algernon with wit and ease; he seems perfectly at home in the altogether silly world he inhabits. Alex Williams plays Jack with desperate energy, driving home the scenework with powerful but precise strokes. The two work well together, and the scenes in which they spar are as delightful as the scenes in which they frantically work together.

Hannah Spina is simply adorable as Cecily. Her character is ludicrously childish and vain, filled to the brim with youthful vigor. The way she interacts with Miss Prism is priceless. The way she runs Algie in circles and cautiously sizes up Gwendolen shows a range of skill. She is able to turn on a dime, and never afraid to commit herself fully to a bit. Comic acting of this caliber is always a joy to watch.

Angela Meisterling Billman, as Gwendolen, is the reserved, sophisticated counter to Spina's bubbly country girl. Her vocal energy is excellent, and she plays scenes with a subtlety and an intensity that fit right into the mix. With Williams she is charming, and the barely contained sexual tension is hilarious. With Spina she is sharp and sarcastic, and the supposedly civil conversation between the two ladies is quite entertaining.

Cherryl Moon Thomason plays the immortal Lady Bracknell, and she does so with grace and precision. Thomason knows exactly how to effectively portray power onstage, and she adds a great deal of tension and energy to every scene she inhabits.

The rest of the company consists of Marty Norton (who plays Miss Prism, the flighty and overbearing tutor to Cecily), Jim Kern (who plays Reverend Chasuble, the learned but lecherous country preacher), and Scott Humeston (who plays all the servants). These performances are delivered with the skill and care you'd expect from TCR veterans, but Humeston's Merriman was a little perplexing.

The old servant plods on and off stage in an exaggerated manner and speaks in a barely intelligible way. Apparently he's had a stroke; exactly what is going on is unclear, but what does happen is that every time he comes on or off, the "pause" button is pressed on the plot. A bit of physical comedy as a palate-cleanser to a couple of hours of verbal sparring is completely understandable, but the timing here seems oddly inexpert. Humeston's slow, staggering (and staggeringly slow) entrance interrupts the rising tension of the fast-paced dispute between Cecily and Gwendolen, steals focus from the principals, and drains quite a bit of energy from a really engaging scene. Lady Bracknell's game-changing entrance later is similarly upstaged. The performance is quite good, but the absurd physicality of the choice seems disruptive. Humeston's reserved butler Lane and his rustic gardener Moulton are a bit subtler, and are quite funny.

Overall, though, if you're a fan of Wilde, you cannot miss this play. It's an excellent example of skilled artists faithfully producing a timeless script. If you've never heard of this Oscar Wilde fellow, this is a great opportunity to see what all the fuss is about. I cannot overstress the importance of seeing Earnest.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs through February 18th on the mainstage at TCR. Performances are at 7:30pm (2:30pm on Sundays). Tickets here.

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