Play Review: "The Importance of Being Earnest" // Written by Oscar Wilde // Directed by Gr
After the confusion that I had felt after watching “Company,” I have to admit that I was a little weary about “The Importance of Being Earnest.” So instead of going into the play completely blindsided as I had done before, I did a little bit of research beforehand this time. From this research I concluded that if anything “The Importance of Being Earnest” is intended to be comedic which gave me hope that I would find some enjoyment in watching it. After the conclusion of all three Acts I am pleased to say that I actually did enjoy the performance. I believe that it was the work of the actors, the Scenic Designer, as well as the Costume Designer that contributed to my overall enjoyment of the show.
One of my favorite actor’s from “Company” was senior Beth Ryan, so I was pleased to see her return as Lady Bracknell for the production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” What I appreciated most about her in her last production was her ability to convince me of her character which she has once again done successfully. Lady Bracknell was one of the most enjoyable characters to me due to her wittiness, non-traditional views on relationships, and over-the-top dramatics. Emily Farebrother’s portrayal of Miss Cecily was also one of my favorite parts of the show. Her performance was very impressive for it being her first Toland production. Regarding her character Miss Cecily, it would’ve been very difficult for me to envision her as only eighteen years old due to her use of what I would now consider to be complex language. But Emily’s ability to make her seem playful and easily persuaded convinced me of her character’s role and age. In my opinion, the rest of the actors were mediocre because I easily remembered that they were indeed just actors. While I am aware that the play takes place in the Victorian era, where speech was much different than ours now, one thing I didn’t enjoy was how fast the actors spoke. Perhaps it was nerves from it being the first production, perhaps it was so that the three-act play wouldn’t drag on, or maybe it was intended to be that way. Whatever the case, it was hard for me to verbally understand what was happening during the show because of how fast they were talking. The dialect of each character didn’t make it easier for me to understand either. One thing that did aid in my understanding was the actor’s cheating out. The majority of the play is comprised of two characters having lengthy conversations with one another, so cheating out not only made it easier for the audience to hear the complex dialogue being spoken, but also helped keep the audience engaged during these scenes where not a lot of action was going on. I also noticed a moment where an actor was aside by speaking out loud dialogue that was meant to be internal. I can’t remember if it was the character of Algernon or John, but I do remember thinking that the moment of aside helped clarify what the character’s intentions were.
The efforts of the Scene Designer also made this an overall successful performance in my opinion. Before the show commenced the audience viewed an already decorated stage including a detailed painted arch of two peacocks that loomed over the stage which made the setting much more intimate, and was effective in conveying the feeling of being inside Algernon’s home. Below the arch was a platform made to look like hardwood floors that the actor’s acted on, as well as scenery pieces that would’ve been found within the home of a relatively wealthy man during this era such as a tea set and fireplace. I found it interesting that there was simply an unlit candelabra on the fireplace mantle and no practical lighting on set such as sconces especially because, as the dramaturg would know, electricity would’ve been found in wealthy homes within London near the end of the 19th century when this play was first performed in 1895. While the set for Act I was well put together, I personally enjoyed the scenery for Act II the most for when they are in the garden at the Manor House in Woolton. There is no clear way to distinguish what time period the play takes place in outside, so pieces such as the enormous trees, flower gardens, and delicate garden furniture all helped with the consistency of portraying the Victorian era by romanticizing the outdoors. Although I admired the flower garden pieces, the one in the upstage left center seemed to cause blocking issues, especially for the characters of Miss Prism and Reverend Cannon Chasuble, that couldn’t go unnoticed by audience members. If it weren’t for the humor that the actors were able to bring to it by overdramatizing their exits the placement of this scenery piece could’ve become even more of a distraction. I also had an issue with the flower garden piece in the centerstage right center simply because one of the painted flowers towards the piece’s center looked less like a flower, and more like the head of a lacrosse stick. As someone who has restrung many nets on lacrosse sticks I couldn’t help but repeatedly notice the similarity which distracted me from the play. I’m unsure about how I feel about the setting for Act III because while it was extremely realistic and beautiful, it also looked less Victorian and relatively modern. One final thing that made this show successful in terms of scenic elements was the incorporation of actual food. I’m not sure if that was included in the original script or not, but it made the scenes that much more humorous. If Algernon had been pretending to chew on muffins rather than spitting out actual pieces of muffin when validating his reason for traveling to Worthing’s Manor House after they’ve been found out, the scene would’ve seemed much less humorous and realistic.
Finally, the work of the Costume Designer aided in the success of the performance of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” I believe that costumes are the first and most important clue at indicating a character’s traits and personality. Before the show began I spent some time looking at the costume sketches/renderings posted up outside of the House wondering how the Costume Director would pull of such intricate looking costumes. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Victorian style dress of each character was actually beautifully executed. I couldn’t stop admiring each costume especially for the women, particularly the two costumes for Lady Bracknell. From the first moment she stepped on stage I got the impression that she was over-the-top and cared much about her status because of her intricate headpiece and large skirt. I appreciated that this impression was carried through into Act III where she played a large role in determining the future of both couple’s statuses, as well as in revealing Worthing’s true identity. I can’t imagine that it was easy to learn how to walk gracefully in her large costume in the short amount of time between the dress rehearsal and the opening performance, but she accomplished it. My favorite costume of the performance was Gwendolen Fairfax’s dress during Act II. Between the spring green color, shimmering sleeves, and beautiful skirt draping I found it just stunning to look at. I also found it amusing that Gwendolen pointed out the difference between her extravagant city dress and Miss Cecily’s relatively plain country dress during this Act because I was comparing the two in my head as well. There was only one character whose costumes I thought were relatively boring considering that he was one of, if not the protagonist of the play. This character was John Worthing. His beige trench coat in Act I was uninteresting to look at and wrinkled in a way that made it look very cheap. His constant flipping of his tailcoat before sitting was humorous, but also repeatedly reminded me of how distasteful I found his costume to be. I also didn’t enjoy his costume in Act II. When he first came on stage I couldn’t believe that the Costume Designer thought that adding a train of ugly, black tulle from Worthing’s top hat was a good idea. It was soon revealed that he purposefully was dressed in over-the-top black clothing to “mourn his brother’s death”, but I still believe that the outfit could’ve gone without the tulle. The addition of props that the Scene Designer and Costume Designer decided upon such as Reverand Chasuble’s cane, the diaries of Miss Cecily/Gwendolen, and the umbrellas of Lady Bracknell/Gwendolen added tiny extra touches that completed each character’s personality. For example, because Miss Cecily sounded as if she was much older than she was meant to be because of her complex dialogue, the addition of a diary helped enforce the stereotype that all young girls keep diaries. Finally, the hair and makeup of each character left nothing to be desired. I believe that the rosy cheeks of all of the female characters as well as their intricate updos, and the formal slicked back hairstyles of the males complimented their costumes and were very indicating of what time period the play took place in.
Overall I am much more pleased with the performance of “The Importance of Being Earnest” than I was with the performance of “Company.” Not necessarily because the acting was better, but because it was slightly easier to follow along with what was going on even if it was difficult to understand the script for someone who was first hearing it. I’m happy that I was able to watch Beth Ryan perform one last time while still being exposed to new actors such as Emily Farebrother. Their acting paired with beautifully constructed costumes really convinced me of their characters, and kept me distracted from remembering that they’re just actors. The scenery realistically represented the Victorian era even if there was no electricity, and the pieces specifically for Act II were beautiful even though they created several blocking issues. I really enjoyed watching the scene where Gwendolen and Miss Cecily are discovering the truth about who they’re engaged to because it was refreshing to receive humor from actresses. If I had to see this production again I definitely would, even if it was long, and I would recommend it to friends and family. On a scale of 1-10 I give “The Importance of Being Earnest” an eight.