By Patrick B. McGuigan
Theatre OCU, Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park and CityRep have joined forces for a fine production of Oscar Wilde’s comedy, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The story is a classic adaptation of Shakespearean follies of mistaken identity, costly mendacity and pretentious social climbing.
Director Lance Marsh pulls the best from a mixed cast of students, young performers and seasoned veterans.The production is beautifully staged in three acts at the Burg Theatre on the Oklahoma City University campus. Under Marsh’s leadership, stage managers Steve Emerson and Jessica McCoy make good use of the revolving stage to present, first, a London home, and then, a country garden terrace.
Andi Dema is perfect as John Worthing, born poor and a foundling, but raised by a generous man who left him a fortune. John goes under the pseudonym “Ernest” when in London, as a way to escape the responsibilities of his station in life.
As “Ernest,” Worthing courts the lovely and intelligent – but rarely challenged – Gwendolen, portrayed by Renee Lawrence. Gwendolen’s cousin is Algernon Moncrieff (Hunter Paul). In story full of the idle rich or near-rich, “Algie” takes the cake. And, in fact, he does take the cake – and any other food within reach in all three acts.
At that country estate, Worthing’s ward is Cecily, performed by Lauren Thompson.
She spends her days studying literature and language, learning nothing from either, and inventing romantic scenarios for her diary. Cecily idolizes “Uncle Jack” – and is enchanted with his tales about a dissolute and irresponsible brother – “Ernest” — whom he claims is wasting away in Paris. But there is no Ernest, or so we believe for most of the show.
The plot thickens, to put it mildly, when Algie steals away from London and shows up uninvited at Worthing’s country estate – pretending to be none other than Jacks’ brother, Ernest. Soon he is wooing the innocent Cecily, barely 18 but claiming to be 20.
After a good start, the young women have the equivalent of a Victorian catfight over a misunderstanding about the man they think they love. Then, Gwendolyn and Cecily bond as “sisters” when they discover they love a name – Ernest – but neither man they adore is the real Ernest.
Leavening the dough, as it were, is Kathryn McGill as Miss Prism, Cecily’s teacher and the personification of a repressed “old maid,” while Dwight Sandell is the celibate Canon Chausible, Anglican rector of the nearby parish. Dialogue between Chausible and Prism is fraught with both humor, literary allusion and sexual tension.
Presiding over the lunacy is Lady Bracknell, as portrayed by CityRep veteran Michael Jones. You have to see him as the domineering elder stateswoman and social arbiter to “get it.” His portrayal is both funny and impressive.
Ever the pro, Jones does not for a moment rely solely on the cross-dressing concept (originated some years ago in London and New York productions) to carry the comedy. No – he makes Bracknell believable. “She” is pretentious, yet in the end sympathetically rendered.
Worthy in supporting roles, as butlers and maids, were Merriman (James Tyler Kirk), Lane (Brett Garrett), and maids (Alexis Graves and Taylor Weinhold).
The play is witty, clever, magnificently written and seemingly trivial in content.
Yet is all its marked silliness really without meaning?
Like his personal story or not, Oscar Wilde was a ferociously observant writer, a closeted gay man seemingly bitter over the conventions of this day. Yet, the same man capable of composing this witty and often brutal satire crafted the tender allegory on charity and God’s love, “The Happy Prince.”
Can a culture like ours — where children are killed over sneakers or their “colors,” and where many “reality” television shows sneer at the legacy that gave us a land of ordered liberty – really sneer at one where manners of speaking and styles of clothing were deemed more importance than nearly all else?
Don’t overthink it. Go see “Earnest.” Wilde meant for it to be fun, and it is.
Remain patient in Act I, where the relationships are set and the dialogue establishes the frivolity and seemingly mannered triumph of fashion over substance.
Relax over the dizzying plot twists and simply enjoy the comeuppance rendered unto virtually every character in Act II.
Honor the amusing final minutes of Act III, when Lady Bracknell, of all people, serves as a kind of “Deus Ex Machina,” resolving disputes in an implausible but laugh-out-loud finale.
As presented in this collaboration, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is great fun, and a fine way to spend just over two hours. There’s nothing trivial about that.
This weekend’s performances will be Fri., Apr. 12, 8 p.m.; Sat., Apr. 13, 2 p.m. Matinee; Sat., Apr. 13, 8 p.m. performance; Sun. Apr, 14, 2 p.m. Closing Matinee.
Tickets are $20, and $8 for Students (with ID) and may be purchased by calling the OCU Ticket Office at 405-208-5227. Tickets can be purchased online through the OCU Ticket Office website at www.okcu.edu/ticketoffice. “Earnest” will play in the Burg Theatre, Kirkpatrick Fine Arts Center, at NW 25th and Blackwelder on the campus of Oklahoma City University.
The importance of being funny – “Earnest” is more than trivial pursuits
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