BWW Reviews: St. Edwards University Stages Remarkably Funny IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

By: Apr. 15, 2013
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It's rare for a play, especially a social satire, to endure for over a century. Times change and what was once topical and funny often loses its punch. Thankfully, Oscar Wilde's 1895 masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest has endured, and in its current production at St. Edwards University, Wilde's witty play flourishes and shines.

Earnest, which is often thought of as Wilde's best comedy, concerns two upper-crust friends, Jack and Algernon, and their double lives. Jack goes by his real name in the country but by Ernest when in London and also tells his country acquaintances that he has a troublesome brother in the city, also named Ernest. Jack is in love with Algernon's cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax, who wishes to marry him, particularly because his name is Ernest, making it difficult for him to tell her the truth. Soon afterwards, Algernon, pretending to be Jack's brother Ernest, meets and falls for Jack's ward, Cecily Cardew. Thus, both Gwendolen and Cecily believe they are in love with a man named Ernest which becomes a problem when the women meet face to face.

Director Richard Robichaux's production is solid and hilariously funny. His creative team has created a beautiful, bright atmosphere. Stephen Pruitt's lighting is cheerful and sunny, Ia Enstera's set is simple but clean and elegant with breathtakingly beautiful flourishes and decoration in Act II, and T'Cie Mancuso's costumes are impeccable, lush, and incredibly well constructed.

As beautiful as the look of the show is, it's truly Robichaux's direction that makes it take flight. Robichaux knows that Wilde's humor is in his words (the play is full of one-liners like "The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her if she is pretty, and to someone else if she's plain.") and all of Wilde's clever lines get plenty of laughs, in part because Robichaux and his cast ensure that we believe that the characters are certain of what they're saying, no matter how outrageous the statement. Though Wilde's text is the focal point, Robichaux's direction and the brilliant portrayals from his cast drive the action and the humor and keep the play going along at a brisk pace.

The entire cast delivers perfect and amusing performances. Josean Rodriguez plays Algernon as an eternal teaser and troublemaker. He's clever, snarky, flamboyant, frivolous, and arrogant, the kind of person who's absolutely fascinating but someone who may not gain your trust or friendship. As Jack, Jon Richardson is charming and constantly perplexed as he always remains a step behind Algernon in their friendly game of entangled identities. As their counterparts, Hannah Marie Fonder and Sophia Franzella prove to be two beautiful young ingénues with incredible comedic timing. Fonder plays Gwendolen as a driven and somewhat rebellious young woman, and Franzella gives a certain earthy and headstrong quality to Cecily. Supporting player Irene White is delightful as Cecily's tutor, the strict, plain spinster Miss Prism, and Robert Faires is wonderful as the hopeless romatic, Reverend Chasuble.

As to be expected though, the most memorable performance comes from Barbara Chisholm who plays Lady Bracknell, one of Wilde's most celebrated and ridiculous characters. While Chisholm may be younger than most actresses who take on the role of Gwendolen's mother (Judi Dench was 67 when played the role in the 2002 film version, meaning her character would have given birth to Gwendolen in her mid-forties, a gross improbability for the late 1800s setting), her younger age is certainly more appropriate. Also appropriate is Chisholm's sharp, dry, cold, and pompous approach to the role. Her performance is flawless in every moment, even when faced with pieces of scenery falling from the sky as they did during an Act III technical malfunction that happened during the performance I witnessed.

Without a doubt, their current production of The Importance of Being Earnest is the most enjoyable production that St. Edwards University has produced so far this season. Everything about it is as upper-crust as the characters themselves, and though the text may be nearly 120 years old, the themes and clever commentary on society still feel fresh and new. The entire effect is as breezy and enjoyable as afternoon tea.

Photo: Jon Richardson (L) as Jack Worthing and Barbara Chisholm (R) as Lady Bracknell in THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. Photo by Bret Brookshire.

Running time: 2 hours and 5 minutes including one 10 minute intermission.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST plays the Mary Moody Northern Theatre at St Edwards University (3001 South Congress Ave, Austin, 78704) now thru April 21st. Performances are Thursday - Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $15-$20.

For tickets and information, please visit http://think.stedwards.edu/theatre/



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