Having a Wilde time at Everyman Theatre
At first glance, The Importance of Being Earnest, a play by the acclaimed Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, would appear to simply be a comical farce, an amusing romp where Victorian sensibilities and social conventions are satirized.
It’s a clever work, which initially seems a mix of a Shakespearean comedy (replete with star-crossed couples and mistaken identities) and the Marx Brothers. (Bruce Randolph Nelson’s gender bending Lady Bracknell is a tad reminiscent of Margaret Dumont, the rich society lady so often the butt of Groucho’s jokes.)
It certainly is all these things, but something more.
Wilde went from fame to infamy for violating the 19th century Victorian mores and English laws that judged homosexuality to be “grossly indecent” (and for which Wilde would suffer imprisonment). He used Earnest, his last published work, to take a stab at both — or better said, to make a thousand cuts.
This production, together with the program notes, highlight the sexual subtext.
Wilde’s alter ego?
If Wilde were in the audience as the curtain rose on the current Everyman Theatre production of his work, he would have enjoyed seeing resident company member Danny Gavigan sporting what could only be called an “Oscar Wilde wig,” echoing the playwright’s long, glossy hair. He plays Algernon, a flamboyant ne’er-do-well who finds a kindred spirit in friend John (Jaysen Wright).
The aristocratic pair trade bon mots (it is Wilde after all) as they regale each other with personal tales of “Bunburying” — the act of leading a double life to avoid one’s filial responsibilities and social duties. The term is also a pointed jab by Wilde toward those aforementioned “sensibilities and conventions,” as the word here also suggests sex between men.
Further, much attention is given in the opening act to the two men’s desire to sample finger sandwiches made from cucumber, a familiar phallic symbol. The sandwiches are meant for Ladies Bracknell and daughter Gwendolen, but they are consumed only by Algernon.
In the midst of all the Bunburying, cucumber consumption, and debates about an engraved cigarette case (a gift Wilde often bestowed upon his male lovers), Lady Bracknell, a wrathful rhapsody in blue, bursts upon the scene.
A Baltimore stage favorite, Nelson steals every scene he — or here, she — is in, thanks to clever body language, facial expressions, and a tone that ranges from scratchy soprano to bullying bullhorn, all in flamboyant costumes that bemuse and bedazzle the audience. (More than just the usual kudos go to costume designer David Burdick for his lavish creations, echoed perfectly in David Ettinger’s kaleidoscopic set designs.)
Serving as foils to Algernon and John are Lady Gwendolen Fairfax (Katie Klieger) and Cecily Cardew (Paige Hernandez), two women who have plots and passions of their own. Together, these fair ladies bounce between the boundaries of friend and foe, dueling with parasol and hand-fan at one moment, and being wrapped in the bonds of loving sisterhood the next.
Rounding out the cast are Everyman staple Wil Love as the Rev. Canon Chasuble, and Helen Hedman as Miss Prism, who, despite the former’s vow of chastity and the latter’s repressed-governess ways, dance delicately along a thin line between propriety and romance.
Carl Schurr provides a vaudevillian flair to his roles of butlers Lane and Merriman, characters separated only by hair color.
Like the Bard’s comic works, all ends well as lovers finally find each other’s arms, and men once friends find they share an even stronger bond.
Deft, comic script
As wonderful as the performances of this fine acting ensemble are, the true star of the show is Oscar Wilde’s spritely script, full of irony and innuendo, which has both the characters and the audience turning from one direction to the next.
It is therefore fitting that the full title of this play is “The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” as Wilde’s mischievous pricks of the establishment that pepper his play create what I am sure in Wilde’s mind was a “serious comedy for trivial people.”
Performed in three acts with two intermissions, The Importance of Being Earnest continues its run at Everyman Theatre, at 315 W. Fayette St. in downtown Baltimore, through Dec. 30. Tickets are $38 to $56, with a $5 discount for those 62 and older for Saturday matinee and Sunday evening performances. To buy tickets or for more information, visit http://everymantheatre.org or call (410) 752-2208.