BWW Review: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST at The Santa Fe Playhouse
Oscar Wilde's 1895 satire, The Importance of Being Earnest, is arguably his most popular, and almost definitely his most widely performed, work. Director Barbara Hatch's director's note references the daunting nature of taking on the challenge of producing such a beloved and well known work; it is my opinion that, with few minor issues, Ms. Hatch and her cast more than did the piece justice.
The Importance of Being Earnest centers around two bachelors, Jack and Algernon (played, respectively, by Hania Stocker and Vaughn Irving) who, for reasons related to the women they are trying to woo, both pretend to be called "Ernest", leading to confusion, hilarity, and the most passive aggressive tea party in, probably, the history of the theatre. The farcical comedy addresses the rather ridiculous beliefs held by English society at the turn of the century regarding marriage and social status, and though some of the references in the play are less than relevant to modern audiences, Ms. Hatch's clever direction and addition of some excellent comedic bits keeps the piece from feeling dated in the slightest.
The trick with ....Earnest is to balance the over the top, satirical elements of the characters with more realistic and humanizing elements. To go too over the top is to make the characters difficult for the audience to connect to, empathize with, and thus, root for, but on the flip side, to make the characters too real and grounded is to abandon much of the humor and, potentially, the very essence of the play. Though there were occasions where various characters fell too much on the side of either caricature or naturalism, for the most part, the ensemble worked together to create a very solid production.
By far, the standout performance in this production is given by Vaughn Irving. Algernon can be a challenging role, as he is in many ways the stand in character for Oscar Wilde himself and much of his dialogue consists of Wildean witticisms. Mr. Irving handles the role masterfully, bringing both a charming and debonair rakishness and also a very real accessibility to the role that makes him endlessly entertaining and engaging. Algernon can often seem to just spout the aforementioned witticisms without any honest motivation, but Mr. Irving added wonderful touches of humanity - for instance, his Algernon was perpetually amused, and the small detail of the occasions where Algernon laughed at his own jokes brought the character down to earth in a very effective way. Ann Roylance, too, creates a nice balance between farce and honesty in her interpretation of the rather judgmental governess Miss Prism to similarly delightful effect, and Patrick MacDonald, as both Algernon's butler Lane and Jack's manservant Merriman, filled both (vastly different) roles with humor, energy, and charm. The rest of the company - Hania Stocker, Jennifer Graves, Christina Comer, Triana Reid, and Ken Bordner - turned out fine performances, as well.
As I saw the production on its preview night, there were a few issues - some line flubs, mainly, with some stepped on laughs and a few pacing issues that I'm sure will smooth out as the run continues. The set change between the first and second act (the first act is 40 minutes, and what are in the script the second and third acts combine to create a second act of a little over an hour; there were some audience murmurs when that was announced at the beginning of the show, but the much longer second act did not feel that long or drag at all, thanks to, again, Ms. Hatch's direction and the energy of the cast) was very impressive (Patrick Briggs's set design is incredible, particularly when paired with Jeremy Plant's lighting design; the way the set changed between the city setting and the more pastoral country setting was also brilliant), but a little clunky in its execution at this initial performance. As I'm addressing tech, I would also like to acknowledge the costumes by Cheryl Odom - I admit that I'm a bit obsessive about costumes, and while some of the pieces were questionable for 1895, the design was nonetheless lovely and effective.
These grievances are minor, overall, though, and did not ultimately lessen the enjoyment of myself or my fellow audience members of this production. The audible reactions from my fellow audience members as the big twist was being revealed at the end of the play made me smile; they seemed to be wholly swept up in this charming production, which is, after all, the point of good theatre.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs at the Santa Fe Playhouse (142 E. De Vargas St.) Thursday-Sunday from November 29th through December 16th. Tickets may be purchased by phone (505-988-4262), online (http://www.santafeplayhouse.org) or at the door.