by Gail M. Burns
I am all in favor of community theatres taking risks. And while The Importance of Being Earnest is not generally a risky play to present – if anything the risk obtains in its over familiarity – it is when you present an earlier and longer version of it. I was completely unprepared for the experience, and while I found it alarming not to hear the line I was expecting to hear when I was expecting to hear it, I came away having learned much more about Oscar Wilde as a playwright.
Written in 1895, …Earnest is generally regarded as the perfect comedy. Aside from Shakespeare, Wilde is one of the most widely quoted playwrights and most of his wittiest and most memorable bon mots come from …Earnest. Most of the famous lines exist in this earlier draft, but they are buried amongst additional nonsense and business – there is even an extra character who appears. Think of the first draft as an unruly hedge which Wilde judiciously pruned over many rewrites until it acquired the shape of the exquisite topiary of the final version.
But people, particularly other artists, are always fascinated by the genesis and development of creation, and so Oliver Parker’s 2002 film version reinstated some of Wilde’s earlier business, including the character of Gribsby, a lawyer who pursues “Ernest Worthing” to Hertfordshire to demand payment for an outstanding debt, who appears in this Circle Theatre Players production as well (in the form of actor Bill Daisak).
In case you are not familiar with the plot, Jack Worthing (James Alexander) has invented a profligate younger brother, Ernest, whose imaginary misdeeds enable him to come up to London from his country home in Woolton, Hertfordshire, whenever his duties to his young ward, Cecily Cardew (Madeline Illenberg), and her governess, Miss Leticia Prism (Debra Bercier), become too much for him. In London he, under the name of Ernest, has fallen in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax (Shiobhan Shea), daughter of the formidable Lady Bracknell (Ryan Palmer) and cousin to Jack’s friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Knathan Mackenzie-Roy).
Lady Bracknell vehemently opposes Jack and Gwendolyn’s marriage when she learns that Jack is an orphan found abandoned in a (capacious) handbag at Victoria Station (the Brighton Line.) Algernon catches wind of the fact Jack has a pretty 18-year-old ward and travels to Woolton, presenting himself as Jack’s brother Ernest, under which name he falls in love with and proposes to Cecily. Then Gwendolyn shows up and you have two women who believe they are engaged to marry the non-existent Ernest Worthing. Hilarity ensues and love conquers all.
Rounding out the cast are Fred Sirois as the Reverend Canon Frederick Chasuble, Rector of Woolton; and Alan Angelo, Amy Daisak, and Tyler Petell as various servants to Jack and Algernon.
…Earnest is a big play by modern standards, even in its neatly trimmed form, but director Criss Macaione-Bilodeau has found leading actors largely up to the task of carrying it off in style. Alexander is an upright Jack, while Mackenzie-Roy, who is rather emulating Wilde’s hairstyle, is a mischievous Algy, neatly consuming quantities of cucumber sandwiches and muffins.
While I object to the current fashion of casting men as Lady Bracknell*, Palmer attacks the iconic role with gusto. He is well costumed by Pat Casey in flamboyantly fussy gowns that compensate completely for the lack of feminine drag accoutrements, such as a bosom and wig. Lady Bracknell is who she is and Palmer conveys a strong sense of the woman.
There is a famous line – …Earnest consists of nothing but famous lines – “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.” Macaione-Bilodeau has Shea play Gwendolyn with definite undertones of her imperious Mama, which is an interesting choice and makes one shudder slightly for the future of Jack and Gwendolyn’s marriage.
Shea is well matched by Illenberg’s sassy Cecily. The youngest cast member, Illenberg is not as powerful vocally as she might be, but she grew in character and assurance as the performance I attended progressed. She is a lovely young woman, and it is no wonder Algernon falls for her!
I enjoyed Bercier’s prim Miss Prism, although this longer version of the play burdens that character with rather too many lines that fail to move plot or character along. She and Sirois nicely underplay the relationship between their characters, making neither seem too needy of affection.
Although this script is in four acts, the more commonly performed version is in three, each requiring a different set – a challenge for any community theatre. Rom Glasser has created rotating side pieces and a reversible French door unit that make set change relatively easy for the crew. There are some handsome pieces of furniture decorating the sets, but I was sad that Gwendolyn and Cecily did not have a proper table to sit at for the famous tea party scene.
Barry Streifert has provided seamless lighting and sound design for the show.
If you have never seen The Importance of Being Earnest, you really should. It is one of the great plays in the English language and this is a fine production of it. And if you have a scholarly interest in Wilde, please take this opportunity to see and evaluate this earlier draft of the play. My one word of warning concerns the run time – the performance I attended clocked in at three and a half hours. I was VERY glad I had chosen a matinee.
Circle Theatre Players present The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, directed by Criss Macaione-Bilodeau, from June 1-10, 2018, at the Sand Lake Center for the Arts, 2880 NY-43 in Averill Park, NY. Assistant director Shawn Bilodeu; Set design Ron Glasser; Costumer Pat Casey; Hair and make-up design Kathy Glasser; Lighting and sound design Barry Streifert; Producer Shirley Neiss. CAST: Knathan Mackenzie-Roy as Algernon Moncrieff; James Alexander as Jack Worthing; Tyler Petell as Lane, Algernon’s servant; Ryan Palmer as Lady Bracknell; Siobhan Shea as Gwendolyn Fairfax; Debra Bercier as Miss Leticia Prism; Madeline Illenberg as Cecily Cardew; Amy Daisak as Moulton, the gardener; Alan Angelo as Merriman, Jack’s butler; Fred Sirois as the Rev. Canon Frederick Chasuble; Bill Daisak as Mr. Gribsbey.
* Please note that my objections are to the practice of casting men as Lady Bracknell, and not to Palmer’s performance or this specific production. Lady Bracknell is one of the great roles for actresses of a certain age, and there aren’t many of those on offer. Casting men deprives able women of the opportunity to play the part. And what message are we sending when we cast men in drag as older women? Certainly it is not a flattering one.