Determined to give classic plays updated productions and a new sense of relevance for today's audiences, the Aquila Theatre Company - after putting new spins on such Shakespeare works as Much Ado About Nothing, The Comedy of Errors, and A Midsummer Night's Dream - has set its sights on Oscar Wilde with a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. And oh how the production could use just a single drop of earnestness of its own.
Devoted fans of Wilde may want to steer clear of the Baruch Performing Arts Center, as director Robert Richmond and producer Peter Meineck have poked and prodded the work almost into unrecognizability, eschewing traditional concepts of understatement, refinement, and high comedy. There's not a single subtle thing in this production, everything is of the in-your-face, see-we're-being funny variety - the vocal renditions of the lines, the characters' hand gestures (often illustrating frequently-repeated words), and even the light cues.
Of course, by moving the setting of the play from the Victorian era to 2003, the play is stripped of the social commentary and class examination aspects that gave it most of its comedy in the first place, requiring something else to be added for any laughs to fall. That leaves us with - among other things - a butler who really enjoys the polished silver tray he carries around, interpolated dances set to modern pop tunes, and an air guitar solo during the curtain call.
Played as a cartoon, there's little need for characters performed with believability, facets, flaws, or even a trace of subtle dry wit, so none of those are present. Instead, the production is a tribute to instant gratification, which, in a way, makes sense; the story about Algernon (Guy Oliver-Watts) and Jack (Richard Willis), two men who create fictional people who allow them to live very different lives in the city and country, always want their own type of escape route from the ills of their world at their slightest whim.
And, of course, Algernon masquerades as Jack's brother in the country and falls in love with Jack's ward Cecily (Lindsay Rae Taylor), while Jack attempts to escape the web of lies he's created himself when he learns that his betrothed, Gwendolen (Cameron Blair), could only love someone named Ernest, the name he's adopted in the city for many years. Ernest, of course, is the name Jack gave his non-existent brother while in the country. Most of the play involves sorting out these various complications.
Yet the vacuousness of the characters, so necessary for the plot, makes little sense when removed this far from class-conscious Victorian London, making the concept questionable, and something not in the best interests of the play. As most of the production is devoted to supporting the new era, there's little to suggest what might have been, though Richmond's often slapdash pacing and occasional inspired notions (setting the show on a cricket court, presented Cecily as pastoralness personified) might not necessarily be out of place in a production of the show closer to what Wilde envisioned.
Nor might some of the performers. Taylor comes the closest to creating a honest portrait of a human being, very much the youthful, idealistic woman of Wilde's text. Blair plays Gwendolen as a modern, upwardly-mobile woman, in a way that almost makes you look at the character herself anew. Willis and Oliver-Watts look the parts, but never dig deep enough to convince us that these men would do all this. Alex Webb - a male actor - plays Gwendolen's mother Lady Bracknell only vaguely as a woman, and is as vaguely successful.
This Aquila production suggests, as always, that the company will never be at a loss for ideas. It would be interesting to see this company tackle an original work, constructing the rules from the ground up. It's heartening, in a way, to see Aquila so intent on smashing traditional definitions of a work; of course sometimes - as with The Importance of Being Earnest - those definitions may have existed for a reason.
Aquila Theatre Company