The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre’s production of “The Importance Being Earnest” is now available online. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.
“We live in an age of surfaces” says Lady Bracknell, the didactic arbiter of taste in Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy. Perhaps that’s the reason why Civic Theatre director Tony Humrichouser chose to set this masterpiece of inverted Victorian values in the swinging Nineteen-Sixties, and cast Wilde’s two male leads, Jack and Algernon, with female performers.
Whatever the reason, Humrichouser’s production succeeds in bringing “The Importance of Being Earnest” to life on the Civic Stage in a smart, well-paced, and very funny production recorded with a fluid multi-camera shoot to be enjoyed online.
By the time Courtney Way as Jack, and Brooke Boyd as Algernon, conclude their entertaining Act I chat about the social and romantic advantages of maintaining dual identities - one for the country and one for the city - I had totally accepted the cross-gender casting of these roles. I had also accepted the Sixties costumes, including women wearing pants and paisley shirts as well as the Swedish Modern furniture that provides the lounging opportunities in Algy’s fashionable London bachelor pad. I had also accepted the clear COVID visor masks worn by cast members.
A highlight of this production is the easy way performers deliver Wilde’s pithy dialogue and witty aphorisms, such as Lady Bracknell’s reaction to the pure and simple truth: “The truth is never pure and rarely simple.” All of the players are comfortable with the British dialect, as well as with the rhythm of the upbeat banter that both defines and lampoons social status, relationships, and the foibles of each character.
Reigning supreme over the engagement plans of Jack and Algernon is Lady Bracknell, played with proper condescension and appropriate prosecutorial tone by Lisa Grace. As she unmercifully grills Jack, a suitor for daughter Gwendolen’s hand, on irrelevant minutia, it’s worth remembering that Wilde himself called the play “A trivial comedy for serious people.”
In Act II, Sarah N. L. Kueppers as the citified Gwendolen, is clad in a knee-length white skirt with tomato soup colored polka-a-dots, straight out of a Carnaby Street fashion plate. In Gwendolen’s initial encounter with Cecily, played by Alissa Britigan, the two trade barbs while taking tea in Cecily’s country home. Britigan’s Cecily methodically and defiantly doles out of sugar cubes and cake, using each to punctuate her disdain for her visitor’s snooty preferences, which in this case are “no sugar” and toast instead of cake.
The young women elevate the pursuit of trivia to absurd heights as they compare diaries and stake their claims on the man each presumes to be “Ernest”, their betrothed. This heated confrontation turns on a dime toward friendship once this misunderstanding is resolved and Algernon and Jack enter the room to pair up with Cecily and Gwendolen respectively.
The marriage of both couples depends upon disclosure of Jack’s true identity. And that remains unknown to all including Jack himself. Wilde’s final act provides the humorous resolution to Jack’s identity crisis. He pleads with Lady Bracknell: “Would you kindly inform me who I am?”
Part of the answer lies in the misplaced handbag of Cecily’s German-accented governess, Miss Prism, deliciously rendered by Mary Redmon. Her handling of a black riding crop gives her more than a hint of the dominatrix. Her Prism is the perfect match for RJ Soule’s delightfully unctuous Reverend Chasuble, who waves his white cane while spouting metaphors and innuendos.
Redmon and Soule, together with Lars J. Loofboro’s nose-to-the-sky butler, Merriman, help to build the acceleration of Act III to its illogical conclusion.
Jack is miraculously found to be the person all had hoped he would be: Ernest. In the end, Wilde shows us that marriages based on pretense and triviality can be happy, if there are enough purposefully gratuitous and superficial plot twists. There are. But then as Lady Bracknell has observed: “We live in an age of surfaces.”
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is available online at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre website through November 8th.