Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The Importance of Being Earnest
The Importance of Being Earnest is receiving a full-fledged three-week production with five of the central performers from The Rewards of Being Frank. Jeremy Dubin and James Evans reprise the male leads, sputtering but tenacious John "Jack" Worthing/Ernest and devilish Algernon "Algy" Moncrieff. Kelly Mengelkoch is back as strong-minded Gwendolyn Fairfax, and Tora Nogami Alexander reprises the role of sweet, naïve Cecily Cardew. Their successful chemistry in various combinations as couples and pairs is rooted in their familiarity with the roles, and the hilarity is supercharged by the return of Christine Pedi (a beloved Broadway performer who now hosts programming on SiriusXM's On Broadway channel) as the haughty and imperious Lady Bracknell.
Rounding out the cast are three local performers regularly seen in Cincy Shakes productions along with Dubin and Mengelkoch, who are both longtime company members. Burgess Byrd is Cecily's stern governess with literary aspirations, and Darnell Pierre Benjamin portrays the secretly lusty Reverend Canon Chasuble. They play their none-too-secret attraction with besotted sighs and longing glances. Additionally, veteran comic performer Billy Chace plays a pair of servants–the judgmental butler Lane and the overburdened rustic gardener Merriman. Wilde did not imagine either role with the comic energy Chace uses, and he is hilarious–evoking a round of applause from the opening night audience as Merriman juggles Algy's overwhelming array of luggage while mumbling incoherently.
The show has three acts: Algy's fashionable London flat, Jack's garden at his Shropshire estate, and the morning room of Jack's manor house. Cincy Shakes uses two intermissions to translate Samantha Reno's stage set from one locale to the next. Algy's home is elegantly furnished with Art Nouveau detailing. For the second act, the rear wall panels rotate to become rose-festooned lattices backing up period-appropriate white garden furniture with rose detailing. The third act's morning room is simpler than Algy's, light and airy–a perfect local as the ornate ins and outs of Jack's and Algy's deceptions are revealed.
Rainy Edwards' Victorian costume designs are smart and detailed. Algy's fashionable suits match his sense of style; Jack's conservative attire is in the vein of a country gentleman. Cecily's girlish nature is reflected in her simple white frock, while Gwendolyn's suits represented a stylish, confident young woman. Which she is, until her "mama," Lady Bracknell, sweeps in: In the first act Pedi is attired in a steel-grey ensemble with an imperious hat augmented by sweeping feathers. In the second act, she wears a startling scarlet dress with broad shoulders. In both cases, Lady Bracknell's clothing is clearly meant to underscore her dominance of the characters she so sharply judges. It's a fine case of costuming enhancing a performance.
The acting, of course, is central to the success of any production of Earnest, and director Brian Isaac Phillips has coaxed maximum performances out of each actor. In the first act, Algy and Jack banter about their deceptions. Algy has invented an invalid relative, "Bunbury," to employ as excuses to escape unwanted social obligations, while Jack's time in the country can be cut short when he has to return to the city to deal with his ne'er-do-well brother. In the second act, Jack is shocked to find Algy at his country estate making romantic moves on sweet Cecily, Jack's ward. This time as they debate, Evans' Algy stuffs his mouth with tiny muffins while verbally sparring with Jack. (On opening night he almost did himself in with one too many, much to the audience's amusement.)
As Gwendolyn and Cecily, Mengelkoch and Nogami Alexander excel at conspiratorial revenge, taking their suitors to task for their evasive ways. Mengelkoch has an extremely expressive face with bright eyes that convey as much as words, such as when with simple stares she forces Jack to understand he must kneel to propose marriage to her. Cecily, a simpler character, uses coy smiles and intentionally naïve observations to get her own way. It's especially fun when Algy's arduous praise strikes her fancy, and she asks him to repeat his words so she can record them in her diary.
At the top of the behavioral manipulative spectrum is Pedi as Lady Bracknell. She orders the younger generation to sit as if they were misbehaving dogs. As the reality of Cecily's wealth and Jack's true noble lineage (and his name actually being Ernest) is exposed, we watch her adjusting her sights to suit the situation to her own desires. It's entertaining to witness her wheels turning while her façade remains intact.
Reverend Chasuble and Miss Prism's minor roles are integral to unravelling the truth behind the shenanigans, and Byrd and Benjamin do a fine job with these small, amusing portraits. Chace's hilarious take on the servants he plays is a study in all-but-unspoken physical comedy.
Add all these elements together to constitute an exceedingly entertaining evening of classic comedy. One has to imagine that this is just how Oscar Wilde imagined The Importance of Being Earnest being staged, fully demonstrating "signs of triviality."
The Importance of Being Earnest runs through August 20, 2023, at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Otto M. Budig Theatre, 1195 Elm Street (adjacent to Washington Park in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood), Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit www.CincyShakes.com or call 513-381-2273.