Hilarious comedy. Ready Wit. Brisk pacing. An actual set that needs to be changed during the intermission. This last aspect is not what one would expect to find on the stage of the Blackfriars' Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. How would Oscar Wilde's famed comedy fit the American Shakespeare Center's style without the benefit of a proscenium and, more famously, performed "with the lights on?"
The answer is triumphantly. The hallmarks of attending a production by the American Shakespeare Center are intact, whether it be engaging the audience through pointed delivery of Oscar Wilde's jabs at society or the clever use of modern songs before the performance and during the two intermissions to provide modern commentary on the action of the play. Combined with expert casting and the direction of Artistic Director Jim Warren who has coaxed the fervor and heightened emotions of the characters without taking the comedy too broad and this production of The Importance of Being Earnest is sheer delight.
In brief, this is the story of two bachelor friends, John"Jack" Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff. Jack has been pretending that his name is Ernest, for the lady he loves Gwendolyn Fairfax has sworn she will only marry someone named Ernest. Algernon, a bit of a rake, tells Jack about his habit of "Bunburying", which he employs whenever he needs to get out of a boring social engagement. Jack meets Gwendolyn and her mother, Lady Bracknell, who is exacting about social niceties. When Lady Bracknell discovers that Jack doesn't know his family background she opposes her daughter's engagement. Meanwhile, Algernon discovers that Jack has a young ward, Cecily Cardew, living in the country. He travels to visit her, discovering that she, too, fancies that she is in love with Jack's imagined brother, Ernest. Algernon masquerades as Ernest. Everyone travels to Jack's country home where much confusion reigns. Add in to the mix, Cecily's governess, the romantic Miss Prism and the hapless country rector, Reverend Chasuble and a couple of droll servants and much confusion reigns until everything reaches a mad cap conclusion.
One realizes immediately that this is no musty, reverent production that shies away from the natural comedy that Oscar Wilde wrote so well. Emotions are worn openly on the beautiful costumes by Jenny McNee. Who knew that the name Ernest could be so erotic? The three acts of the play speed merrily along under the brisk direction of Jim Warren. Despite the unified locations, the Blackfriar's tradition of audience interaction is well conceived. Whether it is a joke about marriage delivered to a couple in the front row of the theater or using some audience members as part of the scenery this is a wonderfully fun two hours and 20 minutes traffic upon the stage.
As the droll servants, the love-pining Lane and the put-upon Merriman, Gregory Jon Phelps and Patrick Midgley are a hoot. John Basiulus is fun as the buttoned-up yet bursting with chaste passion Reverend Chasuble. Allison Glenzer is hilarious as the trying to be stern governess, Miss Prism who struggles to control a romantic streak. As the two ladies, Gwendolyn and Cecily, Blythe Coons and Miriam Donald complement each other. Ms. Coon's Gwendolyn is polished with a naughty streak (the name Ernest is erotic thanks to her performance) and Ms. Donald's Cecily is flighty and charming.
As the bachelor friends who create this delightful mess, Rene Thornton, Jr. as Jack is a delectable leading man with a ready wit. Benjamin Curns as Algernon is devilish, yet totally engaging. Mr. Curns rapport with the audience is such that they eventually play into Algernon's schemes to fun effect.
As the stern Lady Bracknell, John Harrell is quite the aristocratic lady. This role has a long history of being played upon the stage, most recently by Brian Bedford on Broadway. This is no drag performance. Mr. Harrell is quite convincing as the representative of high society. His crisp delivery of Lady Bracknell's biting commentary coupled with perfect poise embodies refinement.
The Importance of Being Ernest is well worth a trip to the heart of the Shenandoah Valley in Staunton, Virginia.
The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde is being performed in repertory with William Shakespeare's The Tempest, Hamlet and Henry V and Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great through November 25, 2011. For tickets and other performance information, please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.