Monday, September 13, 2004

Importance of Being Earnest (Great Lakes Theatre Festival)

Audience loves 'IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST' at GLTF, but...

Each director of a play enters into his production tasks with a philosophy. As Charles Fee, the Producing Artistic Director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival stated in his curtain speech on opening night of the company’s ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, “I tend to like the broad.” It is his directorial broadness that will either endear or turn you off to his interpretation of the Oscar Wilde masterpiece.

Fee pulls out all the gimmicks, shticks, and buffoonery he can invent to get the audience to laugh. He does this, in my opinion, at the expense of not letting Wilde’s wonderful words and ideas play for themselves. It’s a matter of interpretation and degree.

Too much of the pure brilliance of Wilde’s writing is lost in all the gimmickry. There is just too much begging for laughs. Holding books upside down, visual double takes, a bow-legged butler who looks like he has been riding a horse for too many years, over-blown entrance music, a handshake routine that appears to be taken from a Marx Brother movie, inconsistent’s just all too much for my take on Wilde. BUT, the audience loved it…they guffawed at all of the exaggerations. And, pleasing the audience is what Fee is about.

Oscar Wilde was considered to be a wild man in many ways. His life style, his writing style, his clothing style, his politics were all causes for gossip and clamor. The upper classes of Victorian England were taken aback by Oscar Wilde’s attacks on their frivolous way of life and meaningless existences. Since, as only Wilde could do, the plays were hysterically funny, and he had political connections, he got away with it.

Most critics agree that ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST’ is Wilde at his best. His tongue is sharp and his quills piercing as he attacks French drama, the British upper-class, honesty, education, relatives, dentists, newspapers, names, truth, Australia, vegetarians and even the writing of fiction.

The play centers on a suitcase, two men named Earnest, who aren’t named Earnest at all, a cigarette case, an imaginary brother, and the mysterious Bunbury.

Many theatre experts believe that in farce, the characters need to be so real that we laugh with them as they find themselves in improbable situations and at them as they mumble through to the overdrawn conclusion. In Fee’s rendition, the characters become caricatures.

The GLTF cast is generally good, but there is inconsistency. Douglas Frederick as John (Earnest) Worthing, is right on. He looks, acts and is believable in his role. On the other hand, David Anthony Smith as Algernon (Earnest), John’s friend/brother, appears too old for the role and charges through the part like a bull in a china shop. Wayne Turney is delightful as the Reverend as is Nan Wray as Miss Prism, the tutor. Aled Davies, playing Lady Bracknell in drag, has some fine moments, but, in general, he/she throws lines to the wind while overdoing the role. She comes across closer to Edna in HAIRSPRAY than Lady Bracknell. The usually hysterical scene where she interviews John as a potential husband for her daughter, became a police interrogation. Again, a device for laughs rather than letting Wilde’s humor come through. Laura Perrotta makes for a wonderful Gwendolen, texturing the role perfectly. On the other hand, Kelly Sullivan’s Cecily comes across as an airhead. The fact that her English accent comes and goes does not help.

Gage Williams’ sets, Kim Krumm Sorenson’s costumes and Rick Martin’s lighting design are all excellent and add the right era-correct feel to the production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Judging by the opening night audience, most of those who go to see GLFT’s ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST’ will love it. Those of us who like Wilde “au naturale” will leave somewhat frustrated.

Side note: For teachers of school groups who will attending ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST’ be advised that the director has prepared an excellent teacher preparation guide. It can be obtained by contacting the theatre.