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Review: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST at Shaw Festival

Review: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST at Shaw Festival

Still a witty romp.

A breezy comedy of manners, as only Oscar Wilde could pen, is a welcome way to return to Niagara-on-the Lake's SHAW FESTIVAL. For it's 60th anniversary audiences are in for a familiar treat as THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST returns to the stage in all it's witty charm. Hints of covid still pervade the air as a notice of two understudies stepping into two leading roles greeted us. But fear not, their polished presence assured there was never any cause for concern.

Review: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST at Shaw Festival
Julia Course and Martin Happer

Wilde almost always assures that his wordy social commentary blended with brilliant comedic elements fits perfectly alongside the Festival's namesake author. His opinions on marriage, wealth, taxes and social status seem timeless. In what could inarguably be considered his most perfect comedic creation. EARNEST has become a repertory staple.

Two young bachelors who exist for the sole purpose of pleasure each have an alter ego. Jack lives his life as Jack in the country and Earnest in town, while Algernon has an imaginary friend, Bunbury, who comes to his aid when needed to get him out of social engagements. Algernon's aunt, the imperious Lady Bracknell, commands all aspects of her family's (and London society's) life. Who these young men shall wed becomes a source of contention, confusion and silliness.

Martin Happer is Jack (aka Earnest) and anchors the proceedings well with a devil may care attitude as the two faced man about town. At Tuesday's matinee, Algernon was played by the talented Mike Nadajewski. His portrayal was fiendishly funny, every bit the pampered, to-the-manner-born, spoiled brat who indulges too much in alcohol and sweets. He was instantly likeable and a joy to watch.

Kate Henning's take on Lady Bracknell was a bit unconventional, as she reads younger than others who have assumed this juicy role. But Hennig is more age appropriate than the many of the old grande dames who are associated with the role (think Dames Judy Dench or Maggie Smith). Hennig tosses off her didactic speeches with aplomb, pronouncing what is right or wrong with force.

Review: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST at Shaw Festival
Kate Hennig

When Bracknell's niece Gwendolen declares her desire to wed Earnest and Algernon declares his love for Jack's ward Cecily, the conflicts begin. Julia Course as Gwendolen is statuesque and innocent but very smitten and in love. Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane jumped into the role of Cecily, the naive and innocent 18 year old, and found great humor in her lack of worldliness. Both young ladies quickly form an alliance and the pair have the most civilized arguments and reconciliations that can only befit a Wilde comedy

The secondary roles of Cecily's prim and proper tutor Miss Prism and the blustery country pastor Reverend Chasuble are played to great effect by Jacqueline Thair and Ric Reid. The sound design was not always kind to Miss Thair, as many of her lines were inaudible. Mr. Reid gleefully embodied the aging bachelor who speaks too much and in incessant metaphors.

The Festival's Artistic Director Tim Carroll took the reigns himself in directing this piece. Carroll allows the action to proceed without much ado or fussiness, letting the actor's find the humor in the script without too many gags. Set Design by Gillian Gallow frames the stages with a number of ornately decorated mini prosceniums, with set pieces gliding into the frames. The large hedge rows of boxwoods in the second act afforded some creative entrances and exits. Costumes by Christina Poddubiuk were effective and apropos of the era.

EARNEST at first glance appears as a comedy poking fun at the trivialities of the upper crust. Who to marry is never an issue of who one loves, but rather of what the union can bring forth in social status and monetary gains. Lady Bracknell's check list for eligible bachelors, while wholly comedic, can most surely be based in a desire to wed well for the purpose of remaining or ascending to a higher station, even if that means marrying one's own cousin. Wilde himself undoubtedly based much of the plot on his own experiences of marrying a woman but leading a double life as a homosexual having gay affairs, as he fled city life for the country. The Jekyll and Hyde aspects of the plot can't really be ignored. But his knack for finding comedy in the preposterous lives of the wealthy cannot be ignored, and for that we should be forever grateful.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST runs through October 9, 2022 at the Festival Theatre of the Shaw Festival. Contact shawfest.com for more information.




From This Author - Michael Rabice

Michael Rabice has over  40 years of experience attending plays, musicals and opera all over the world. He is a frequent performer in opera and has appeared with the Glimmerglass Opera, Artpark... (read more about this author)


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