Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People premiered in London in 1895 and marked the pinnacle of the Irish writer, bon vivant and irreverent wit’s often scandalous career, also precipitating his shameful downfall. Considered by some the funniest comedy of the age, by many the funniest of any age, attention should be paid to its subtitle, both in performing and attending the work. Like many farcical comedies satirizing elements of society, its pace, delivery, tone and style matter a great deal more than its intellectual content. This can prove a challenge for contemporary actors focused on exploring motivation, subtext and their navels, who may simply forget the play is three faux-silk cravat’s worth of send-up, more akin to a “Fawlty Towers” episode than God of Carnage.
For its Fall 2011 production, Wingspan Theatre, under the direction of producing artistic director Susan Sargeant, has embarked on safari into Wilde territory. They may not have exactly bagged the Golden Fleece or crusaded the Holy Grail with this production of “Earnest”, but they do glimpse them both on the theatrical horizon. What the company presents is a sweet, accessible, enjoyable production of Mr. Wilde’s piece de resistance. I viewed the three-act production (cut down many years ago from a four act opus) on its opening night. In addition to noticing some unscheduled falling set pieces and a misbehaving rumpled oriental rug, I found that the performance proceeded unevenly. The cast as a whole seemed anxious and tentative, treading on laughs and slow on some entrances, even stumbling on lines and character names in their rush to speak. It’s often a misfortune to review on opening night, before a cast has adjusted to an engaged, attentive audience. I trust the thoroughness of Sargeant’s direction and the experience and skill of this cast to rise to the challenge the “trivial comedy” presents. The audience seated around me opening night thoroughly enjoyed themselves; perhaps it was the steady stream of laughter and guffaws that unnerved the cast. I’m watching with a focused critical eye, noticing things the average patron may miss.
What I really liked: Nancy Sherrard tops my list as one of the finest comic actors in this region, whether in contemporary or period productions. She possesses the presence, the comic timing, the droll delivery, and the nuanced talent to milk every last drop of shivery laughter out of a willing audience with the mere cock of an eyebrow. Cast in the signature role of Lady Bracknell, a role to covet for any comic actress over age 40 worth her salt, Sherrard excels. A gimlet-eyed, domineering dowager who suffers no fools and has impeccably unrealistic standards about the arrangement of suitable marriages, Lady Bracknell knits the play’s madcap tomfoolery into one fluid resolution, almost as if she knows where it would be going all along. She’s a sly, calculating, manipulative broad masquerading as gentility, the perfectly executed cruel send-up Wilde intended of “high society ladies” that led to his downfall.
As with the rest of the cast, Sherrard seemed a trifle unsteady with her first scene’s opening lines but soon found her customary rhythm. Lady Bracknell swept everyone along with self-important, exceedingly gauche aplomb; the laughter kept rolling out with her every glance and utterance. I refer to her as Dame Nancy, the DFW region’s very own comic royalty.
Lisa Schreiner and Jessica Renee Russell make a divinely air-headed pair of marriageable lasses, Gwendolen and Cecily, in saccharine compliment. They are equally hot for passionate embrace and alliance with the first eligible bachelor or cad that tips his hat their way, under those proper bustles, corsets and frilly petticoats. Best comic repartee of opening night came from this doe-eyed damsel duo on romantic prowl. Lanky Ben Bryant ‘masterpiece theatred’ the two humorless, reptilian butlers of the play down to infuriatingly funny mannered detail, a sanctimonious, reserved foil to the young dandified men-about-town, the play’s two male leads.
What I wasn’t so taken with: the two young dandified rakes, the play’s leading men. Come on, chaps, lighten up and relish the Wilde raunch: Andrew Milbourn as Jack and C. Ryan Glenn as Algernon. You’re narcissists and charlatans, frivolous peacocks arrogantly playing everyone else like a game of whist. Enjoy yourselves. Ooze charm and charisma as the Butch and Sundance of the Victorian Era; win over the hearts of the audience as well as the young damsels’ with your outlandish mystique. Savor these roles; flaunt propriety with unabashed delight. I hope opening night’s orderly, careful performances have given way to something far looser, sillier and naughtier, as written. Frances Fuselier and Lorna Woodford round out the cast as workmanlike working class stooges with a dalliance of their own to attend to, obligatory roles but hardly showcase specials. The audience wants to adore this production; give them what they seek and they may go absolutely Wilde….
Costumes, by Barbara C. Cox, flatter and fit the women nicely, seem slipshod on the men. The three scene set, executed in precise detail by Rodney Dobbs, stretches the Bath House Cultural Center playing space to its max. I’m sure its noticeable wrinkles got ironed out before the cast got out of their make-up and went home opening night.
Photos by Lowell Sargeant
Wingspan Theatre’s The Importance of Being Earnest runs through October 22 at the Bath House Cultural Center. For more information or to reserve seats, visit www.wingspantheatre.com. Call: 214-675-6573 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org