Anyone Can Play Accurately, But I Play With Expression

Everyone knows The Importance of Being Earnest . In Oscar Wilde's comedy of manners, confusion and insults fly when two men pretend to be named Ernest and propose to two women. The play has become such a staple on the syllabi of literature and theater courses that it does not seem to be a play to actually go out and see performed. The Importance of Being Earnest is a relic, suitable for study but not enjoyment. Or is it? From the reaction of the audience at Theater Ten Ten's production of the play, it appears it is still possible to sit and laugh uproariously at Wilde's script. Wilde's witticisms leap off the stage, still fresh and slightly odd after over one hundred years. It is the jokes that carry the play and the production, under the direction of Judith Jarosz, realizes this fact.

In a theatrical culture that has come to expect some form of psychological realism, some form of the Method from its characters and productions, it can be startling to see realism missing from a production. So many modern productions of Wilde's plays, including the film versions, insert realism into the text, giving the characters a breadth that is actually not truly present. The actors portraying John Worthing, Gwendolyn, Cecily, and Algernon in Theater Ten Ten's production at times seem as though they are automatons, in possession of the ability to project but not the ability to emotionally connect with their characters. As one listens to what they are saying to each other, the way in which each sentence or speech is punctuated by a trifling turn of wit, it becomes clear that it is difficult if not impossible to make such fluffy characters into actual people.

Many of their lines are delivered as the characters face the audience. It is not a form of direct address, per se, as they seem unaware of the audience's presence. The presentational style appears to be used more because the characters are performing for each other. They realize what they are saying is ridiculous and witty, intended to make one laugh. Occasionally, the laughter was so loud that the next lines were drowned out. As it turns out, the play is possibly the Victorian era's version of stand-up.

Unfortunately, not all scenes hold up in Theater Ten Ten's production. The tea scene, in which Gwendolyn and Cecily discover that they are both engaged to someone named Ernest, lacks the bite it should carry. It was as if on this particular evening, the actors' timing was off, creating an odd pace for what should be a fast paced, catty scene. Further, it was hard to notice the fact that vindictive Cecily gave Gwendolyn tea cake when she asked for bread and butter, because the cake and other food props were so small as to be nearly invisible to the audience.

Otherwise, the play holds up nicely. It is possible to still see reflections of contemporary society (one thinks of celebrity culture) in Wilde's flippant, fluffy characters. The costumes, by Kristin Yungkurth Raphael and Lydia Gladstone, are beautiful and truthfully recreate the styles of the Victorian era. In a culture that likes to adapt and meld classic works to fit its own current needs and attitudes, it is nice to see a play left untouched, performed as it was written. The Importance of Being Earnest is a simple show, and is worth seeing for anyone with an appreciation for the styles and mores of the Victorians.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post