BWW Reviews: Classical Theatre Company's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is a Witty, High-Gloss Production
Since its World Premiere performance on February 14, 1895, Oscar Wilde's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST has been an enduring favorite of audiences. Unlike the other plays of its time, this farcical comedy didn't heavily focus on contemporary social issues, so critics were unsure of Oscar Wilde's seriousness as a dramatist. However, they did recognize the play for its wit and popularity with audiences. In 2014, those same attributes hold up well. Currently, Houston's Classical Theatre Company is producing THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST and earning many hearty laughs with their take on the classic.
In the play, John Worthing, J.P. and Algernon Moncrieff have developed and maintain false personas that allow them to easily shirk any social obligation they do not wish to keep. Through their ruses and machinations, both inadvertently cause two women to fall in love with the same false persona, Ernest. Through mistaken identities, manipulated manners, and general hilarity, three functioning couples are formed.
Direction by Thomas Prior expertly captures the stuffy pretention of the Victorian era, showing audiences the expected manners of the period and how John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff work against them. The veneer of sophistication and propriety is undermined by the sly wit of the characters, and this is where the show's largest hurdle lies. Oscar Wilde is tricky to produce because the audience must see the characters as real while the production giddily embraces the farcical elements of the play. Under Thomas Prior's reigns, the characters come across as too slick, which distances the audience from them and makes it hard for us to relate to their purposefully trivial plights. Additionally, the choice to have no intermission between Oscar Wilde's second and third acts makes for an unusually lengthy second act.
John Johnston's Jack and Matthew Keenan's Algernon are the epitome of the dapper Victorian male. With sensible, well-tailored attire and socially acceptable grooming, both are handsome and carry themselves with decorum when around others. Yet, when left on their own, we clearly see how they subvert societal pressures and expectations. Both earn spirited laughter from a majority of the audience, but their use of wit and guile did little to charm me. I left the play feeling coolly indifferent to their characters despite their skilled performances.
As Gwendolen, Lindsay Ehrhardt looks gorgeous. Her character makes the audience laugh as she lets her guards down when her mother, Lady Bracknell, isn't around. Coming into her own as a grown woman, she proudly and believably asserts herself late in the production's second act and stands up for her own desires. On the other hand, Emily Neves' Cecily is wonderfully naïve and youthful. The bubbly personality she creates for the character is delightful.
Stepping into the role of Lady Bracknell, Pamela Vogel has large shoes to fill. Recent memory refers to Dame Judi Dench's sterling performance in the 2002 film adaption of the play. While making the character her own, Pamela Vogel crafts a character that is wondrously formidable. She brings the character to life by emphasizing her stern adherence to societal expectations for manners and behavior, her inflexible ideologies, and her domineering rigidity. As Lady Bracknell, Pamela Vogel delivers exactly what audiences expect from the character.
Ted Doolittle's Chasuble is a humorous caricature of Victorian clergy members. Julia Traber's Miss Prism is an amusing portrait of a dotty country lady. Bradley Winkler is convincing as the hired servants Lane and Merriman.
Scenic Design by Ryan McGettigan playfully illustrates locations with clever backdrops that are changed during intermission. Moreover, his use of color and skewed lines gives the stage a bright and jovial appearance that matches the tone and ambience of comedy.
Claremarie Verheyen's Costume Design gorgeously recreates period fashions with skilled precision and dexterity. Each of the garments worn by the cast members is perfectly appropriate for the setting of the show. Likewise, she mixes in a whimsical amount of color to ensure that the designs are both eye-catching and lighthearted.
At the bottom line, I neither loved nor hated Classical Theatre Company's production of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. I was pleasantly surprised by their decision to not update or modernize it in any way, as I'm used to seeing them approach these classics with a distinctly novel vision. With that said, this high-gloss production looks stunning and is well acted. Despite this, I just could not get into the play and left the theatre feeling very distanced from everything that played out before my eyes.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, produced by Classical Theatre Company, runs at The Barn (formerly the Barnevelder Arts Complex), 2201 Preston Street, Houston, 77003 now through April 27, 2014. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://classicaltheatre.org or call (713) 963-9665.
Photos by Pin Lim. Courtesy of Classical Theatre Company.
Pamela Vogel as Lady Bracknell, Matthew Keenan as Algernon, John Johnston as Jack, and Lindsay Ehrhardt as Gwendolen.
Pamela Vogel as Lady Bracknell, John Johnston as Jack, and Lindsay Ehrhardt as Gwendolen.