Review: The Importance of Being Earnest (American Players Theatre)

| August 23, 2014
Kelsey Brennan, Matt Schwader and Marcus Truschinski star in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon)        
      
The Importance
   of Being Earnest

Written by Oscar Wilde  
Directed by William Brown
American Players Theatre, Spring Green, WI (map)
thru Sept 27  |  tickets: $36-$44   |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets 
    
        
                   Read review 
     


  
  

A brilliant take-down of society’s enduring ills

     

Marcus Truschinski, Kelsey Brennan, Sarah Day, Cristina Panfilio and Matt Schwader in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon)

    
American Players Theatre presents
    
The Importance of Being Earnest

Review by Catey Sullivan 

The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde at his sparklingly wittiest. But it would be a colossal error to categorize Earnest as a pithy quipfest. There’s subversion and wisdom in every last one of the play’s many razor-edged epigrams. What sounds on its surface like an amiable madcap comedy is no less than a brilliant take-down of society’s enduring ills. In this piercing satire disguised as a drawing room comedy, Wilde uses words like gleaming stilettos as he inflicts a thousand and more needling puncture wounds to the smug hypocrisies and preening vanities of the upper classes. The comedy is brilliant, no doubt. But its satirical underpinnings give a mighty foundation of substance to Earnest’s glittering style.

Kelsey Brennan and Cristina Panfilio in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon)Director William Brown illuminates and propels Wilde’s rapid-fire text like a comet. Wilde’s scathing take down of contemporary mores starts early, as drawing room dandies and dashing young men-about-town Algernon (Marcus Truschinski) and Jack (Matt Schwader) natter on about cucumber sandwiches and women, in between tut-tutting about the disgraceful morals of their economic inferiors. (“Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”)

Algernon, who is the kind of mischief maker who can thoroughly undo one in the course of a weekend, also delivers an initially baffling treatise on the fine art of “Bunburying.” It’s an art that’s essential to Wilde’s goofy/profoundly lucid plot. Bunbury is his invaluable imaginary invalid friend, Algy explains. When Algernon wants to escape the city and raise havoc in the country, he simply claims he has to tend to ailing chum, and heads off under a cloud of perceived selflessness and loyalty. As it turns out, Jack has been Bunburying about as well, leaving his home in the country under the pretense of tending to his mortally malingering and thoroughly non-existent brother Earnest in the city.

But Jack has encountered complications with his double life. He is in love with one Gwendolen Fairfax (Christina Panfilio), daughter of the redoubtable Lady Bracknell (Sarah Day). He may have to kill Earnest, Jack frets. Such is the absolute seriousness of his intentions toward the fair Gwendolen. Indeed, Jack has come to the city with the express intent of proposing. Through Algernon, we get Wilde’s wry, witheringly accurate take on the dubious connection between romance and marriage:

“I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty.”

Wilde has far more than that to say about Victorian-era conventions of courtship. Scratch the ”Victorian.” The Importance of Being Earnest could be set today. With the entrance of Lady Bracknell, we get a character who is simultaneously apoplectically hilarious and a vast trove of insight into the vanities and hypocrisies of the era’s moral codes. gender roles, and class systems. But while Earnest is set specifically in the late 19th century, Wilde’s text spans into timelessness. As for Lady Bracknell, she is the formidable personification of Wilde’s deliciously barbed expose of all that is wrong with the world. In this great ship’s prow of a woman, Wilde gifts us with a character that foreshadows everyone from Maggie Thatcher to Kris Jenner. “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance,” she proclaims with an authority that calls to mind many a contemporary attitude on the likes of vaccinations or evolution or climate change or science in general, “Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound.” Boom. It could be a campaign speech by Michelle Bachmann.

Cristina Panfilio and Matt Schwader in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon) Tracy Michelle Arnold and John Pribyl in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon)Kelsey Brennan, Marcus Truschinski and Matt Schwader in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon) Kelsey Brennan and Tracy Michelle Arnold in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon)Marcus Truschinski and Matt Schwader in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon) Marcus Truschinski, Cristina Panfilio and Matt Schwader in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon)Matt Schwader, Sarah Day, Marcus Truschinski, Kelsey Brennan and Cristina Panfilio in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon)

Lady B’s subsequent interrogation of Jack after learning his intentions toward her daughter is a classic refutation of snobbery, materialism and superficiality. Among other issues, Jack is an orphan, making him wholly unsuitable in Lady Bracknell’s unwavering estimation. (“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune…to lose both seems like carelessness.”)

It takes a formidable actor to fill Lady Bracknell’s shoes, and that American Players has in Ms. Day. Algy and Jack may get more stage time, but Lady Bracknell is running this show. Day is as close to perfect as you’re going to get this side of the grave. It’s all too easy to play Lady B. strictly for laughs, to turn her into a one-note gorgon or a comically overblown drag queen. She’s a larger-than-life woman, but if you simply balloon her into a draconian buffoon, Wilde’s barbed social commentary gets buried. Cartoon replaces character. Day is nobody’s cartoon. She delivers Lady Bracknell with dimension and depth. She’s a fearsome, domineering presence to be sure, but Day cuts deeper than mere presence. Lady Bracknell is a force of nature, but she’s also a fully fledged person. Crafting a character that is both is a formidable task. Day gets it done gloriously.

As is his wont, Brown generates nuanced, memorable and thoroughly entertaining performances from the entire ensemble. Truschinski rather seems born to play the shallow yet quick-witted bon vivant that is Algernon, deftly capturing that always-a-tad-weary tone of the young, privileged, intelligent and underachieving. He makes the dialogue sound as if he were making it up on the spot, whether he’s philosophizing about the nature of truth (“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”) or his own personal failings (“If I am occasionally a little over dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over educated.”) As Jack, Schwader is less glib and more overtly emotional than his smooth-operator friend. His swoony ardor for Gwendolen is delightful, his sputtering rage at Algernon’s designs on his young ward Cecily hilariously indignant.

Matt Schwader and Marcus Truschinski in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon)As for Gwendolen, Panfilio is an absurd delight as the comely spawn of Lady Bracknell. Gwendolen has a mind of her own to be sure, but there’s no question but that she will turn into her mother. It’s only a matter of time. (“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.”) As for Algernon’s intended Cecily, Kelsey Brennan provides a deliciously precocious, ingenue – innocent (sort of) country mouse to Gwendolen’s affected airs of preening, citified sophistication.

Brown’s supporting players, who play crucial and unexpected roles in ensuring that everything ends happily (“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”) are striking. Tracey Michelle Arnold brings a studious vulnerability to Cecily’s tutor Miss Prisom. John Prybil is a shyly earnest clergyman as The Rev. Chausible. And as Algernon’s butler Lane, Paul Bentzen drolly personifies the very British concept of a stiff upper lip.

Mathew J. LeFebvre’s meticulously detailed costumes enhance and define the characters: Lady Bracknell is decked out in intimidating hats and shades of royal purple while the daughter’s flowing gown and aggressive feathers speak to her future transformation into the mother. Algernon and Jack are perfect dandies, right down to their gleaming cufflinks. And Miss Prism’s German heritage is humorously reflected in her no-nonsense color palette and faux Lederhausen.

The sole jarring note in The Importance of Being Earnest comes from the massive, screaming red abstract painting adorning Algernon’s parlor. It looks like a leftover from the set of Red, and Brown makes a point of having Algy’s visitors stare at it. Darned if I could figure out why it was there. That’s a quibble though, or a reflection of my own lack of perception. The Importance of Being Earnest will have you laughing until you weep, and then confounded with awe at the singular, subversive genius of Oscar Wilde.

  
Rating: ★★★½
  
   

The Importance of Being Earnest continues through September 27th at American Players’ Up-The-Hill Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, WI (map).  Tickets are $36-$44, and are available by phone (608-588-2361) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More info at AmericanPlayers.org(Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes, includes 2 intermissions)

Matt Schwader, Cristina Panfilio, Kelsey Brennan and Marcus Truschinski star in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon)

Photos by Carissa Dixon


     

artists

cast

Marcus Truschinski (Algernon Moncrieff), Matt Schwader (Jack Worthington), Paul Bentzen (Lane), Sarah Day (Lady Bracknell), Gwendolen Fairfax (Christine Panfilio), Tracy Michelle Arnold (Miss Prism), Kelsey Brennan (Cecily Cardew), John Pribyl (The Rev. Canon Chausible), Paul Bentzen (Merriman).

behind the scenes

William Brown (director), Sara Becker (text and voice coach), Mathew J. LeFebvre (costume design), Kevin Depinet (scenic design), Michael A. Peterson (lighting design), Andrew Hansen (sound design and original music), Erin Albrecht (stage manager), Carissa Dixon (photos)

Marcus Truschinski, Kelsey Brennan and Sarah Day in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon) Marcus Truschinski and Kelsey Brennan in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon)Cristina Panfilio and Kelsey Brennan in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon) Marcus Truschinski and Matt Schwader in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon)Sarah Day and Marcus Truschinski in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon) Marcus Truschinski and Kelsey Brennan in American Players Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, directed by William Brown. (photo credit: Carissa Dixon)

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Category: 2014 Reviews, American Players Theatre, Catey Sullivan, Oscar Wilde, Up-The-Hill Theatre

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