Imagine if Stephen Colbert wrote and directed a full satire episode of “Downton Abbey”. That’s what Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” feels like in Oklahoma City University’s accommodating thrust Burg Theatre space. A standout, signature co-production by Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre (City REP), Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park and OCU’s Theatre Department, it boasts almost a century’s worth of talent, craft and artistic experience collaborating in fine-tuned, hilarious synthesis. The final weekend approaches with its last performance at the April 14th 2pm matinee.
Why mention Stephen Colbert and an1895 satirical British farce in the same breath? They exhibit remarkable parallels in masterful use of language, characterization and ferocity of satire. The OCU production, directed by D. Lance Marsh, Artistic Director and Head of Performance at OCU, honors Oscar Wilde’s classic farce lampooning social mores in rich, extravagant style while revealing its characters with a streamlined economy suited to 2013 tastes, those that may resonate with Colbert’s “defining moment” onslaughts directed at the pompous and powerful. Its two and a half hour span with two short intermissions passes in a comet’s flash, leaving the audience aching for more. The play is universal – the OCU set magic – the production as relevant and fresh for 2013 as for 1895.
Setting the fanciful tone and irreverent mood with swaggering panache as they enter, Andi Dema (Jack Worthing, “Earnest”) and Hunter Paul (Algernon Moncrief), practice a *“bunburying” charade with the ingenuous charm and sensual gusto of Redford and Newman in their ”Butch Cassidy” era. Every tawdry move calculated to disarm leads both lads further into a divinely tangled web of deceit, and it’s just so much fun to watch them earn every bit of crow they eat. Dema, as dark and dashing as a modern day Errol Flynn, strides across the stage as Worthing with precise, dry wit, unerring diction and non-stop, priggish preening, utterly convinced he will readily prevail in pursuit of a nuptial match (on his terms) with his pedestalized Gwendolyn Fairfax. In contrast, Hunter Paul’s gleaming Cheshire cat grin and vapid air of indolence mixed with feigned innocence masks a clever scheming mind, as well as a childlike obsession with muffins. Seemingly simpler on the surface, Algernon excels more at manufacturing intrigue than his more “worldly” comrade Worthing. Paul’s “offhand” line delivery and deliberately casual posing let the audience recognize him for the lovable con he is while he maintains his hapless guile with the other stage characters. Both actors, products of the outstanding OCU theatre program, finesse every potential aspect of humor and satire from their characters, clearly framing and defining the play’s conceit and setting off conflict.
Nobody, no matter how ingenious or clever, pulls any wool over the eyes of the formidable Lady Bracknell. One of the finest stage roles in the Western tradition, Lady B is considered by many to be the greatest character Wilde wrote. Frequently played by a man (of recent note, the 2011 Tony nominated revival featuring Brian Bedford), Oklahoma City’s production follows suit with a casting stroke of fortunate genius: the Emmy Award-winning, nationally respected Michael Jones, who owns the role as if born to play it. Standing a solid six feet tall in his socks, imagine the imposing sensation Jones causes making entrance as Lady Bracknell, in heels and tricked out society matron brocaded attire, including coiffed wig and imposing peaked hat with cascading feathers…. With “her” steel-eyed glare and Gorgon-grim jaw set trained on them, all characters scatter for cover like scared quail, even before Jones’ Lady B opens her mouth to speak. Establishing her as the ultimate arbiter of “good taste” and the “decider” in all questions of conduct, Jones’ deadpan, rapid-fire delivery lends Lady Bracknell an uncanny gravitas that sends Wilde’s satirical intentions spinning off the charts. (Sadly, the stunning success of this character led to the end of Wilde’s career as a playwright, as the society matron upon whom he based his Lady set out to destroy him in revenge and succeeded.)
Consider the play’s pair of “eligible, young ladies”. Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolyn, as played by elegant OCU junior Renee Lawrence, practices her “technique” to become the next generation’s Lady Bracknell with earnest dedication. Wickedly acquisitive and birthright-assured with ramrod straight backbone, she makes Gwendolyn quite the fiery match for smooth, urbane, independent Jack Worthing. One can imagine the unleashed boudoir fun and unbridled drawing room brawls in that “happy couple’s” future:
JACK: Gwendolyn, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?
GWENDOLYN: I can. For I feel that you are sure to change.
Gushing sweet as sorghum as Cecily Cardew, while evoking a startling cross between Madonna and an “innocent” dairy maid, OCU student Lauren Thompson simps and squeaks and sniffs and pouts with determined girlish guile throughout, coming off a bit daffy in contrast to her bosom chum Gwendolyn. But just you wait until she gets her not so dotty claws into unsuspecting Algernon’s business, private and public. Thompson as Cecily and Hunter Paul as Algernon share a genuine knack for comic delivery and pause. Together their spirited, conjoined enlivening of Wilde’s foppish characters provides sheer delight, more brilliant casting on Director Lance Marsh’s part.
Two seasoned professionals, Kathryn McGill and Dallas-based Dwight Sandell, give bold performances in the play’s secondary “downstairs” plot. McGill, Oklahoma Shakespeare’s Founding Artistic Director, adds a splash of daytime soap to the chaotic fun, portraying the enigmatic Miss Prism, straight-laced schoolmarm with a shady past, with wit, verve and “meaningful glance”.
She creates a Miss Prism just ditsy enough to satisfy as Oscar Wilde’s improbable, hilarious, “deus ex machina” plot resolution catalyst. Sandell’s Reverend Chasuble can barely control his earthly passion for Miss Prism’s ‘charms’, going full throttle in a role that must have outraged the humorless, self-righteously devout in Wilde’s era. (Think lusting priests are a new permutation? See Sandell’s interpretation of Wilde’s character.) Following through in Downton Abbey-style parallel, Director Marsh engages his manservant and housemaid characters visibly in the lampooning of the upper class snobs and even incorporates the period-attired set dresser/changers in the ‘downstairs’ fun. OCU students James Tyler Kirk and Brett Garrett as Merriman and Lane earn audience laughs honestly, both shining in the satirical delivery of Wilde’s pointedly irreverent lines. A grand time is had by all, bringing to life and ease of accessibility the master’s carefully worded, poetic text, full of alliteration, assonance, hyperbole and outrageous rhetoric.
About the set and costumes: has every audience gasped audibly when the Burg Theatre revolve rotates, revealing the lush, open-air garden set? This is one of the most beautiful, creative set designs (Jack Yates, designer) and scenic painting expanses (Debra Hicks) I’ve seen in the region. While firmly grounded in the classic era, it satirically foreshadows impending modernity. A blended framing of thrust and proscenium with a floral “painted ribbon” design motif in a detailed, Oriental rug style encompasses the production – magnificent, simple and classic. (Brian Clinnin’s set designs for Trinity Shakespeare in Fort Worth exhibit this level of visual integration and ingenuity, but nothing else in the Dallas/Fort Worth region touches it.)
The blended space and design concept allows Director Marsh to utilize classic proscenium presentation and blocking when appropriate, particularly for scenes with Lady Bracknell. It also effectively injects a shattered fourth wall contemporary sensibility on the thrust, where Marsh places most of Jack’s and Algernon’s entrances and interactions downstage, close to the audience. Costumes – in cut, texture, hue, period style and accessory – match the set design in scope and accuracy and reflect individual personality traits of each character memorably (Robert Pittenridge). Lighting and sound design (Kathryn Eader, Jeffrey R. Sherwood) mirror the professionalism and artistic merit of the other technical aspects.
Each of these three arts organizations has a solid history of excellence in artistic production. By joining forces in producing “The Importance of Being Earnest”, they demonstrate the positive power of cooperation and create an entertaining show audiences will remember fondly for years to come. I urge your attendance, in earnest.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde runs this weekend through Sunday, April 14 @ 2 PM.
All performances are in the Burg Theatre in the Kirkpatrick Fine Arts Center, located at NW 25th and Blackwelder on the campus of Oklahoma City University
Tickets: $20 adults, $8 students, teachers and military personnel with ID
CITY REP ticket hotline at 405.848.3761
All photos by Wendy Mutz
Lady Bracknell’s fan page on Facebook:
A NY Times profile of Tony nominated Brian Bedford in the 2011 New York revival:
*What’s “Bunburying”? From Wiktionary —
Etymology: the term was coined by Oscar Wilde in “The Importance of Being Earnest” after Bunbury, fictitious invalid friend of Algernon’s whose supposed illness is used as an excuse to avoid social engagements.
Definition: avoiding one’s duties and responsibilities by claiming to have appointments to see a fictitious person, sometimes associated with clandestine homosexual liaisons.