Monday, September 22, 2008

The Importance of Being Earnest, Lakeland Theatre

(Teresa McDonough as Gwendolyn and Timothy Allen as Jack)

No matter how many times you see it, it’s hard not to be entranced by the language Oscar Wilde employs in The Importance of Being Earnest. His combination of slicing satire and silliness, using a meat cleaver one time and a scalpel the next, always leads to laughs.

Of course, the number and strength of those chuckles are also dependent on the performers who assay these oh, so familiar roles. And while there are some soft spots in this production, the Lakeland Theatre company acquits itself competently—with a couple standout performances.

Built on the most ridiculous premise, and involving people so superficial they make Paris Hilton look like a cross between Hannah Arendt and Noam Chomsky, Importance is fluff of the first order.

Set in the fading years of Victorian England, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing are each enamored of young women (Cecily and Gwendolyn respectively) who both have a serious jones for the name Earnest. Accordingly, each young man pretends to wear that moniker and then proposes marriage, until Gwen’s battleaxe mom Lady Bracknell and Jack’s rather unusual personal history catch up with them all.

In the role of Lady Bracknell, which is often cast cross-gendered, Mitchell Fields wields his powerful voice like a velvet truncheon to intimidate the young men and keep Gwen in her place. Even when his red wig inadvertently slipped off twice, Fields never broke character and agilely ad-libbed his way out of it, making Jack promise to never reveal what he had just seen.

The four young lovers are played with serviceable British accents by Justin Brenis (Algernon), Timothy Allen (Jack), Teresa McDonough (Gwendolyn) and Caitlin Sandham (Cecily). And they succeed in conveying the shallowness of these folks who luxuriate in their cosseted world of afternoon teas, cakes and sly backstabbing.

But these four actors, to varying degrees, end up being hostages to accent and attitude. Having captured the lilt and cadence of their character’s speech, each performer tends to glide past small moments and telling beats that could make Wilde’s humor even more delightful—and their characters more involving.

In this regard, Douglas Collier as Rev. Chasuble and Mary Ann Elder as Miss Prism actually do catch the magic, turning their short scene of repressed eroticism into a hilarious encapsulation of Victorian priggishness.

Overall, director Martin Friedman keeps the pacing lively so that the three acts go down as smoothly as petite, crust-less cucumber sandwiches. And the elegant-looking production, designed by Keith Nagy, is refined down to small details such as delicate period parasols and handbags.

But above all, the language of Wilde is always a treasure. How can you not love lines such as Lady Bracknell’s when she responds positively to Jack’s admitted lack of intellect: “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.” Perhaps the Republican Party can use that as a rationale for Sarah Palin’s refusal to do more interviews.

The Importance of Being Earnest
Through October 5 at Lakeland Community College,
Rts. 90 and 306, Kirtland, 440-525-7034

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