Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Importance of Being Earnest was warmly embraced when it premiered in 1895, but Wilde's fall from grace shortly afterwards due to a morals conviction abruptly ended its run. In the course of the twentieth century, Wilde's reputation has been rehabilitated, his work widely read and performed, and The Importance of Being Earnest, by most accounts, deemed his master work. The current production retains its 1890s English look in costumes and set pieces, and adopts the class-defining accents of well-to-do Brits and those who serve them. Much of its humor is based on completely outmoded notions of courtship, class consciousness, and propriety, yet it retains its ability to provoke gales of laughter in 2017. And what a tonic it is to spend an evening at the theater laughing.
Wilde's plotting is quite clever and adheres to a logic on its own terms, but the froth and wit with which it is presented matters more than the particulars of the story. At the start, we meet two young chumsJack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, both members of the idle richif not wealthy as Midas, at least well-off enough to have no need to work. Both gents pursue the object of their affections under the pretense of being named Ernest. Jack aims to marry Algernon's cousin Gwendolyn, while Algernon falls in love with Jack's young ward Cecily, and it turns out that both young ladies have always yearned to marry a man named Ernest. Along with this absurd notion, the plot brims with concealed and mistaken identities, a ploy for escaping social obligations called Bunbury, a baby abandoned in Victoria Station, a not very subtle flirtation between Cecily's governess Miss Prism and the Reverend Chasuble, and two inappropriate butlersdeadpan Lane and daft Merriman.
Looming above them all is formidable Lady Bracknell, Gwendolyn's mother and Algernon's aunt. A good deal of what she says makes no sense, but her pronouncements bear such an air of haughty authority that no one dares argue, such as her response when Jack (posing as Ernest) tells her that he has lost both of his parents: "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." If that line sounds familiar, it is one of many lines in Earnest that are quoted and appropriated. British journalist Mark Lawson cites Wilde's play as the second most known and quoted play in English, after Hamlet.
Director Jason Ballweber stages the play with the audience on two sides of the stage, placing seats on risers beneath the Southern's proscenium. The benefit, aside from increasing the theater's seating capacity, is in seeing audience members across from me laughing heartily, increasing my own, for there is a contagion effect to laughter. The actors do well at turning to both sides, so that everyone gets a front view, but in the absence of microphones, it is sometimes difficult to hear them when they are facing away. Further, Ballweber paces the show at whip-speed. One suspects he held a stopwatch during rehearsals to push the actors to get through their lines faster with each reading. The exception to this is Lady Bracknell, who is allowed to take her time. This pushes the play from start to finish in 100 minutes, without intermission, only short intervals between each of the three acts. The speed calls us to pay close attention to catch every word, though, alas, some fall victim to the race, and lines here and there are missed. However, for the vast majority that is captured, the rapid-fire makes the wit seem even sharper.
Four Humors has assembled a jolly troupe of actors to inhabit these droll characters. Ryan Lear depicts Algernon as a witty lay-about, whose only enthusiasm is the pursuit of pleasure, as long as it doesn't require too much effort, and Christian Bardin disguises her feminine form well as a frenetic, indefatigable Jack Worthing. The two make a great pair, contrasting in almost every way, including physical stature. Of the two, Lear has many more joke-lines, which he delivers with an air of wry detachment. Brighid Burkhalter is a steely Gwendolyn, declaring her passions, but never displaying them, while Emily Wrolson has eager-to-dive-into-life vitality as Cecily.
It has become a fairly common practice for Lady Bracknell to be played by a man in drag. In this case, the actor Brant Miller plays her "straight," that is, without making the fact that he is a man in woman's clothing override his characterization. He has a terrific way with the delivery of Lady Bracknell's many plum lines, and retains her dignity even as she presides over the most ludicrous of scenarios. Iris Rose Page conveys Miss Prism's sincerity with more than a hint of desire, and Matt Spring makes a fine Reverend Chasuble. Director Ballweber, however, pushes his butler roles too far, past madcap into burlesque, especially Merriman. He draws attention not to what they say or do, but to his own shtick, which breaks the otherwise unified feel of the production.
Amanda Verstegen and Anna Weggel-Reed provide soft musical underscoring during parts of the play, on keyboard and percussion instruments, along with whispered vocals. "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" shows up a couple of times. They also provide music, at full volume, during the intervals between scenes. Randy Newman's "Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear," played between acts two and three, is a surprising, but oddly appropriate choice.
Mandi Johnson provides a range of eye-catching costumes, with two wonderfully hideous gowns for Lady Bracknell, dapper apparel for Jack and Algernon, stylish dresses for Gwendolyn, and a girlish dress for Cecily. Otherwise, the physical production is modestly scaled, with a number of antique furniture pieces set up in each scene, along with four large spiral topiaries in planters, one at each corner of the playing areas, to indicate the garden setting of act two.
The play is full of cockamamie notions, but to pick at the irrational chinks in the plot is to miss the point. After all, people often are irrational. The fact that the irrationality and deceptions paraded on stage produce pairs of happy lovers was a great poke to the conventions of courtship and love in 1895 and still today has a rib-tickling effect. If "funny" is what makes us laugh and "wit" is what adds ideas to the laughter, The Importance of Being Earnest works because it is funny and witty. Four Humors has captured its essence, offering a gift of laughter that is always welcome, especially so in these times.
The Importance of Being Earnest, presented by Four Humors Theater, continues through February 25, 2017, as part of the Art Share series at Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $20.00 in advance, $24.00 at the door, $12.00 students with ID, free for Art Share members. For tickets and information on Art Share go to southerntheater.org. For information on Four Humors Theater go to fourhumorstheater.com.
Writer: Oscar Wilde; Director: Jason Ballweber; Set Design: Meagan Kedrowski; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson; Lighting Design: Jon Kirchhofer; Props Design: Matt Spring and Brant Miller; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter.
Cast: Jason Ballweber (Butler Lane/Butler Merriman), Christian Bardin (John "Jack" Worthing), Brighid Burkhalter (Gwendolyn Fairfax), Ryan Lear (Algernon Moncrieff), Brant Miller (Lady Bracknell), Iris Rose Page (Miss Prism), Matt Spring (Rev. Canon Chasuble), Amanda Verstegen (musician), Anna Weggel-Reed (musician), Emily Wrolson (Cecily Cardew).