Russ Hunt's Reviews

The Importance of Being Earnest
By Oscar Wilde

Theatre New Brunswick
March 1995

If there has ever been a script which completely deserves the adjective "brilliant" it must be Oscar Wilde's demonstration of the dramatic diamond cutter's art, The Importance of Being Earnest. To perform this play in a way which actually allows an audience to be dazzled by that brilliance is a challenge which theatre companies have been undertaking -- and often being defeated by -- for a hundred years.

The play's brilliance lies in the fact that it's a parody of its own perfection. Its language and plot, the symmetry and balance of its characters and its motifs, are so perfect that the perfection itself becomes part of the joke. The wonderful lunacy of the characters' motives -- not one, but two women in love with the name Earnest; a nanny absent-mindedly switching a baby and a novel manuscript -- only works if the audience takes the dance of the plot rather than the reality of the characters seriously . In order to carry off this joke, a theatre company must have the skill and resources to go over the top with the form -- to create sets, costumes, props, lights, and all the mechanics of theatre with such elaborate perfection that we in the audience find ourselves laughing with delight at turns in the plot which otherwise might seem merely absurd contrivances.

Theatre New Brunswick has carried this all off triumphantly. Michael Shamata and his company have created a setting that does full justice to Wilde's diamond. To do it requires a performance of just the kind of overripe perfection demonstrated by the elaborate, perfectly overstated costumes of Patrick Clark and the amazingly intricate and gorgeous set of John Ferguson. Shamata's direction, emphasizing patterns of action with an almost balletic sense of symmetry and rhythm, helps the play be what it is: a brilliantly polished, elegant verbal dance.

The cast, faced with the challenge of Wilde's wonderfully shallow epigrams masquerading as dialogue, not only delivers the epigrams with the necessary lightning speed and clarity, but makes the play actually feel like conversations rather than merely a list of brilliant lines. It's difficult to select individual characters out of what is clearly an ensemble production. Perhaps it's best to identify pairs.

Patrick Galligan's Algernon and Oliver Dennis' Jack play off against each other with a joyful, sure comic timing. Algernon's languid cynicism and Jack's, well, earnestness, make their banter about cucumber sandwiches, muffins and relatives just the kind of explosive tennis match Wilde must have had in mind.

The two sets of lovers -- a sort of mixed doubles of comedy -- are equally skillful. The courtship of Jack and Gwendolyn puts the earnest Dennis across the net from the determined and calculating silliness of Laurie Paton's Gwendolyn, insisting that only a man named Earnest could ever be worthy of her affections. And in the next court, the debonair Algernon's whirlwind courtship of Deborah Drakeford's Cecily is even more breakneck -- indeed, of course, it turns out, to his astonishment, t hat in her diary they've not only been engaged since well before they met, but in fact the engagement has already been broken off and reinstated.

The remarkable turns of the extended scene between Cecily and Gwendolyn -- meeting, discovering that both seem to have become engaged to Jack's mythical brother Earnest, falling out, discovering that both have been misled, and falling back in -- offer the actors a chance to conduct their own set of elegant serve-and-volleys. If both are perhaps a little robust and mature to play the elegant wisps Wilde imagined, their control of pace and diction makes us forget that as soon as they speak.

Even the minor characters deliver Wilde's language elegantly. Ben Carlson, who plays both butlers with a wonderful elegant condescension, gets real sparkle into his lines, and Terry Tweed and David Hughes as Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble are appropriately prim and bumbling.

But of course everything revolves around the redoubtable Lady Bracknell, one of the great characters of comedy. Darcy Dunlop's crisp, devastating delivery, perfect timing, and alarming posture make her the Douglas Fairbanks of the play, leaping into fray after fray and effortlessly disarming the bandits and pirates -- on every side -- with her rapier wit, her steamroller certainty, and the quivering feathers on her amazing hats. "To lose one parent is understandable," she announces; "to lo se both looks like carelessness." Somehow, she manages to hiss a line without a single "s" in it: "Gwendolyn . . . the carriage."

Listening to language delivered with this kind of precision is, in fact, rather like watching a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler: you come out into the light imagining yourself talking like that, the same way as a kid you imagined yourself holding off six bandits with your flickering swordplay.

The laughs come so swiftly, one after the other, that you find yourself suppressing your laughter in order not to miss the next line. In fact, one of my few reservations about this production has to do with the fact that in a few cases the cast may have been surprised by the response, and moved a little too quickly to the next line, not giving us time to laugh. On the other hand, it's pretty difficult to anticipate the laughs: the little explosions of discovery, for instance, as members of the audience r ealized what was about to happen as Algernon, posing as Jack's reprobate brother Earnest, arrives at the country estate, were distributed over a period of minutes.

People who care about theatre sometimes bemoan the fact that institutions like TNB seem to be trapped by their own size -- unable to do the small, intimate productions that challenge actors and audiences, forced to compromise to fill their large houses and maintain their budgets. The success of this production, though, is in itself a justification for TNB's existence. The resources which only such an institution can bring to bear, and which sometimes seem encumbrances to dramatic experience, are here use d perfectly.

Finally, of course, this is silly theatre, but it's silly theatre wrought to the point of perfection. As you walk out of the Playhouse, you won't have been changed, you won't have had your soul wrung out, you won't have altered your political or social ideas or decided to mend your ways. But you'll have had a chance to be engaged in a perfect form, to attend as closely and intensely as you've ever attended to anything that was not actually life-threatening, and to have laughed as often as you're ever lik ely to in a couple of hours.

When you love a script or a score, every new performance is both a risk an an opportunity. The risk, of course, is that your expectations and memories may be too high, that the imperfect performance will dim your memory of the work's potential, that you'll come out of the theatre or the concert hall less able to remember why you ever loved the work. But the opportunity is that the work itself may pull the performers to new heights, and make you more aware of its -- and their -- potential. TNB has taken f ull advantage of that opportunity. If you care about theatre at all, don't miss this one.

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