The piquant wit and epigrammatic wordplay of Oscar Wilde are in full swing at the Blackfriars Playhouse this summer as the American Shakespeare Center presents The Importance of Being Earnest, one of three plays in the season.
This searing, breathtakingly funny caricature of late 19th century British upper-crust society and its befuddled sense of values have made "Earnest" a favorite since its debut in 1895. Wilde's observations of life, love, men, women and marriage take on a life of their own far beyond the storyline, and represent the playwright at his satirical and quotable best.
For those unfamiliar with the play, Jack Worthing and his friend, Algernon Moncrieff, pursue two young women who insist that they can love only a man named Ernest. Neither Jack nor Algernon, of course, is named Ernest, but that doesn't stop them from pretending it is. Throw in some fictitious characters, the mystery of Jack's parentage and a forbidding aunt and you have a surefire recipe for hilarity.
Since the play centers on Wilde's brilliant use of language (as opposed to "action" as we have come to think of it), it is critical for just the right actor to assume just the right role in order to maintain maximum interest and momentum. ASC director Jim Warren has made sure of that, casting the play to perfection.
Benjamin Curns as Algernon is insincere and brimming with vanity, as he should be, but at the same time deftly mitigates what could otherwise be just a shallow and glib character with an amiable, winking familiarity with the audience. Rene Thornton Jr. makes us like Jack Worthing despite his adherence to nearly all things trivial and gives us a character with a surprising warmth and charm. As superficial as these guys are, you can't help rooting for them.
Gregory Jon Phelps — who seven years ago played Jack Worthing in the Shenandoah Shakespeare production of Earnest — doesn't have much to do as Algernon's butler, Lane, but that doesn't stop him from milking the role for every drop of humor he can get out of it. Patrick Midgley as Jack's butler, Merriman, is in much the same situation and attacks it in precisely the same way. Every time these two come on stage, you wonder what they're going to do next.
Fans of James Keegan will find the actor trussed up in an overabundance of fabric and face powder as Lady Bracknell, the haughty old battleaxe whose high Victorian sensibilities act as a wet blanket to pretty much everything that Algernon and Jack want to do in the way of courtship. I won't go so far as to say Keegan was born to play the part, but he sure as heck seems to have a lot of fun doing it.
As great as all these characters are, it is the young ladies who give Earnest its real glitter. Miriam Donald as Cecily (the object of Jack's ardor) and Blythe Coons as Gwendolyn (Algernon's paramour) are excruciatingly pretty and capricious, and capture with airy ease the mannerisms of two young women who are somewhat more grounded in reality than their lovers — but not too much more.
This firing-on-all-cylinders cast also includes Allison Glenzer, John Basiulis, Daniel Burrows and Chris Johnston.
The Importance of Being Earnest is considered to be Wilde's best play, and in the hands of Jim Warren and the actors of the American Shakespeare Center, it's easy to see why this work has endured for so many years. My recommendation is that you don't miss it.
For best seats order The Importance of Being Earnest tickets now.
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