Theatre Review

A sparkling night of clever, classic comedy

By F. William Oakes
Posted 9/27/17

The Gamm Theatre has kicked off their season in a delightful way, with a sparkling and insightful production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Deftly directed by …

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Theatre Review

A sparkling night of clever, classic comedy

Posted

The Gamm Theatre has kicked off their season in a delightful way, with a sparkling and insightful production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Deftly directed by Fred Sullivan Jr., this production delivers all the charm, wit and big laughs we expect from Wilde but provides some extra special surprises too. You have probably seen this classic comedy before, but never quite like this.

Oscar Wilde dubbed his masterpiece “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”; what Mr. Sullivan and his clever onstage cohorts have achieved here is a judicious balance of comedic triviality and the underlying seriousness of what could be merely an airy confection by keeping us always mindful of the times and circumstances in which it was written. The witty lines still shine like glittering stars, but these stars are set upon the glossy firmament of Victorian superficiality. The society depicted here is one of shiny surfaces and the images reflected back aren’t necessarily true.

There is an inherent hypocrisy in such a society and suffice it to say that Wilde knew that well and knew exactly who and what his ‘trivial comedy’ was skewering. The full impact of his one-liners land the hardest on the truly self-aware, a rare enough commodity then and now. Amidst his wit he depicts a society where appearance is everything, class distinctions are rife and it’s ok to marry a cousin provided he has the proper pedigree. Lady Bracknell imperiously admonishes to “never speak ill of society, only people who can’t get in do that.” Wilde knew what that meant too well too. Though a popular celebrity when he penned the play, Oscar Wilde was also something the English Victorian society absolutely disdained, he was an Irish homosexual. He experienced the height of his fame and his utter downfall in the same year and “Earnest” was and is, in its wittily ruthless depiction of Victorian social mores and hypocrisies, an apt example of sly and insidious outsider art within so-called respectable society.

Director Sullivan has heightened our class consciousness here by bringing the outsider in. At The Gamm we have Oscar Wilde himself, delightfully portrayed by the very talented Brandon Whitehead, making an appearance in his own play! Mr. Sullivan has staged the play as a sort of "parlor room" production where Wilde is presenting the play to his contemporaries and this serves as a insightful little tweak, making accessible to us all the serious triviality of the piece. Wilde introduces the play, serves as our arch touchstone and guide to his world. A bit of perspective depth is brought by having Wilde quote his own witty observations he made throughout his life and actor Whitehead has a merry romp playing four smaller roles in the play. All this is less of an alteration and more of an enhancement; Fred Sullivan is too smart a director to belabor the point. An example: during the course of the play he has Wilde laugh out loud when an actor delivers one of his jokes. But only once. We get the idea, we move on.

Sullivan has also, wisely, restored portions of the play that were edited out by the author prior to its initial production. The version we all know is a three act play; Wilde originally wrote it as a four act — but don’t worry, it doesn’t run too long! By cutting some lines and restoring some others, again makes the seriousness enhance the triviality. The actual consequences from actions now resonate. Algernon and Jack’s convention defying ‘scrapes’ are now met with real consequences; the law is after “Earnest” for a transgression; now it is not something to be snickered off, either one could face real jail time. Oh, how this echoes the real jail time Wilde actually did endure, not too long after his hit play was produced. This is a masterful cutting and restoration of Wilde’s original text and intentions.

Forget this seriousness; bring out the laugh out loud trivial! Happily this production has that too, in abundance, it just wouldn’t be Wilde without laughs, but it is well to remember who he is laughing at. The plot comes close to the stuff of farce, with mistaken identities and all, but it is well worth noting that every character in this play, all of whom are living within the constraints of late Victorian society, are, to a greater or lesser extent, pretending to be someone that they are not. In a society of staid but shiny surfaces  it is our own little fictions that sustain us.

But what funny fictions these are, what talented and clever actors who bring them to life! Marc Dante Mancini is insouciance personified as Algernon Moncrieff, our stand-in for the playwright if he weren’t already in the cast. He casually tosses off Wilde’s incendiary bon mots with an air of utter self-satisfaction and self-regard yet remains utterly endearing. He is well matched by Jeff Church’s debonair portrayal of Jack Worthington. Jack is as duplicitous as Algy but lacks the vital self-awareness that Algernon alone possesses in this play, for him double-dealing is merely the proper moral course; Mr. Church manages to make an essentially obtuse upper crust twit, likable, romantic and, yes, earnest.

Deb Martin delivers what can only be described as an operatic performance as Lady Bracknell. She seems to make each and every line an absolute aria about the smug and shallow self importance of society Grande Dames like herself and, by extension, the hollow pretensions of a world where status always trumps authenticity; each syllable she utters seems to drip with both condescension and absolute self-regard.

Nora Eschenheim, as her daughter Gwendolyn Fairfax, is quite formidable too, almost a Bracknell-in-waiting, but one instilled with a fine and utterly romantic purpose, though she knows exactly what she wants there is an essential integrity that shapes her ends. Alison Russo is sheer sweetness as Cecily, but, here too, there is a steely resolve beneath her romantic exuberance.

Great Gamm Theatre stalwarts Jeanine Kane and Tom Gleadow shine as Miss Prism and Rev. Chasuble, each are utterly, and often obtusely, charming.

Patrick Lynch’s set design charms too, a Victorian parlor with just a hint of a proscenium arch. The costumes by Dvid T. Howard are spot on, each a work of ornate fashion for for an age when appearance meant everything, Lady Bracknell’s gowns are as meticulously assembled and as multi-layered as Deb Martin’s bravura performance in the role.

No ‘classics’ were ever written to be ‘classics’; each and every play ever written were specific to their times. But there’s the rub, why do these classics endure? Why see an “Earnest”, or, heck, even a “Hamlet’ again? Maybe this 122 year old play is still done because each and every subsequent society is just as superficial as the previous one. Maybe because it is one of the best comedies for the stage ever written, one here given a vital little shot of Wildean perspective. In the end, ‘serious people’ you can just go to The Gamm and enjoy the ride of this ‘trivial comedy.’ This production preserves the author’s intentions and remains, again as our author would have wanted it, laugh-out-loud hilarious. This is a very clever comedy, one here made more clever by being very true to Oscar Wilde. Happily too, you don’t have to deconstruct the whole damn thing to simply enjoy it as the wonderful experience it is. As Wilde himself is reputed to have said during a dinner party discussion of Shakespeare: “are Hamlet’s commentators mad, or merely feigning?” Want a sparkling night of clever classic comedy? See this show.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” at The Gamm, now through October 15, see listings for details.

Gamm Theatre

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