|Matt Leisy and Loren Dunn|
Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is receiving a stellar production from the Arizona Theatre Company. Wilde's satirical play pokes fun at English social customs in the late 1890s and does so with a combination of elegance, style, and an abundance of comical bon mots. The witty nature of the play is perfectly matched with Arizona Theatre Company's witty cast and design.
Wilde uses an inscribed name in a cigarette case to get his plot rolling. When Algernon confronts his friend Ernest over the name "Jack" inscribed in the cigarette case Ernest left behind at Algernon's home, we discover that, while both of these men have fairly respectable home lives, they have created alternate identities as well. Ernest has created a younger brother "John," nicknamed "Jack," and Algernon has created a constantly sick friend named "Bunbury." The creation of these alternate identities allows the two men to avoid any unwanted social obligations by easily saying they have to go deal with their friend/brother. And it also allows them to get into a bit of debauchery as well when they are away from home under these other identities.
Now Jack/Ernest is in love with Algernon's cousin Gwendolen and he is prepared to kill off his imaginary brother and settle down with her. However, the forceful Lady Bracknell, Algernon's aunt, is the one person who can decide who her daughter Gwendolen will marry, and Ernest's lack of a proper background, due to his being left as an infant in a handbag at Victoria Station, forces Lady Bracknell to disavow the engagement unless Ernest can find out who his real parents are. As Lady Bracknell puts it, "You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter, a girl brought up with the utmost care, to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel?"
Lady Bracknell holds respectability, adherence to the correct form, and proper upbringing in the highest regard and she clearly believes that one must only do what is socially acceptable. Of course, if you have the right combination of a large sum of money and the proper upbringing, then that trumps everything. And, while Jack is prepared to reveal who he truly is to Gwendolen, she makes it clear to him that she could only love someone named Ernest, as the name Jack just is too plain. When Jack let's Algernon know that the cigarette case was a gift from his young ward Cecily, Algernon's interest is piqued and he makes it his mission to meet her. But he can't meet her as himself, so why not pretend to be "Ernest" himself?
Assumed and mistaken identities, English social rules, and the witty language of Wilde all come together to show us what truly is the importance of being "earnest" in Wilde's most popular play. The playwright's ability to drive the plot with the use of confusion and tension framed around assumed identities and whether or not someone will allow another person to get married only adds to the satirical nature of the plot. Adding to this is the silly yet romantic notion that a woman could be in love with a man only if he has a specific name.
The cast for this production, with just one slight caveat, is superb. Matt Leisy as Algernon and Loren Dunn as Jack both embody their roles to such extremes that they seem to easily become these parts effortlessly. Dunn is the perfect image of respectability, but when Algernon or Lady Bracknell threaten to undo his plans he becomes frustrated, and Dunn's ability to easily play both the level-headed and hot-headed sides of Jack are well in tune with the character. Likewise, Leisy perfectly plays all facets of Algernon—he is witty, charming and clever yet extremely self-centered. His whimsical mannerisms and body language align with the character and add an entire additional layer as well to an already rich character portrayal. Leisy is simply perfect.
Allyce Beasley is Lady Bracknell and, while I admire her straightforward take on the delivery of the more humorous lines, she is much too stern in the first act, which detracts somewhat from the humor the character brings to the play. Bracknell is supposed to be overbearing and somewhat of a buffoon, where her almost unrealistic actions and behavior are comical, but she is taking a more serious route. Beasley's actions in fact don't always make us laugh at Bracknell's behavior, which I believe was Wilde's goal, but instead make us only slightly amused. Fortunately she seems to be playing it a little lighter in the second act which doesn't make her stick out so much from the rest of the cast and allows the laughs to more easily flow.
Anneliese van der Pol and Heather Marie Cox as Gwendolen and Cecily match their romantic counterparts with equal amounts of frenzy and emotion. In almost every other production of this play I've seen, both Gwendolen and Cecily take a back seat to the other three lead characters but van der Pool and Cox are equals in all aspects. Van der Pol is giving an incredible performance as Gwendolen, and does an excellent job in showing both her idealistic and pretentious character traits. In fact I don't think I've ever seen a better Gwendolen in the four productions I've seen of this play. Cox does a very nice job in showing Cecily's immature and artistic sides but also has no problem in relishing in the fantasy elements of her life that she has created. Cox is just lovely as Cecily.
Director Stephen Wrentmore has found the perfect balance and pace for the play, allowing the comical moments to really shine through but also leaving plenty of room for a nice bit of romance. With the exception of Beasley in act one, he has also directed his cast to superb heights of frenzy throughout. I especially like how he doesn't have Jack and Algernon be too similar in style, almost as if they were twins, as some of the productions of the play I've seen have attempted to do. Jack and Algernon may be similar but they are far from being identical.
Sets and costumes by Yoon Bae are as superb as the casting with a lovely emphasis on the style of the peacock incorporated into both. Bae's monochromatic act one sets and costumes explode into color in the second act and I thoroughly enjoyed how she has Algernon's suit not only match the act one set of his house but his act two suit is a perfect colorful complement to his previous black and white suit. Likewise, the dresses for the ladies are not only lovely but Bracknell's act two costume has one of the funniest capes you'll ever see. Bae has also concocted a simple, yet extremely creative, set transformation between the acts.
Arizona Theatre Company's production of The Importance of Being Earnest is a sublime, infectious and simply lovely comical gem.
The Importance of Being Earnest at Arizona Theatre Company runs through October 27th at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street. Tickets can be purchased athttp://www.arizonatheatre.org/ or by calling (602) 256 - 6995
Photo: Tim Fuller/Arizona Theatre Company