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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

The Importance of Being Earnest: A Diverting Late Summer Evening with Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest
Steve Wilson and Gareth Saxe
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the wittiest and most durable verbal farces in the English language. Presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in its as usual reliable form, it is providing New Jersey audiences with a pleasant evening’s diversion.

The time is 1895. Jack Worthing (Gareth Saxe), who resides in the country, has created a fictitious younger brother, Ernest. Ernest ostensively resides in London. Pretending to be his own brother, Jack is free to lark about the city without endangering his good reputation. As Ernest, he has fallen in love with, and is about to become engaged to, Gwendolyn (Caralyn Kozlowski), daughter of the snooty Lady Bracknell (Jane Altman) and niece to his best friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Steve Wilson).

When Algernon finds Jack’s cigarette case with the inscription, “from little Cecily, with fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack,” Jack is bound to explain to him that the beautiful, young Cecily (Elena Shaddow) is his ward, and that because he is her guardian, he has to maintain a spotless reputation. Hence, his deception. Finding out the Hertfordshire country address of Jack and wanting to meet Cecily, Algernon arrives there, and introduces himself as the fictitious Ernest. Then, there is the matter of the provenance of Jack, who was taken in as a baby by Cecily’s grandfather after he had been found in a large handbag which had been left at Victoria Station, and the role of Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism (Susan Greenhill), in this matter.

The principal target of Wilde’s spoofery is the hypocrisy of Victorian morality. Gwendolyn and Cecily each insist that they can only love a man named Ernest. For them, it is more important that a man bear that name than that he actually be its homonym.

Solid, entertaining, appropriately stylized performances are delivered by all of the principals. However, in her archest moments, Jane Altman’s accent for Lady Bracknell does remind one of the “pedantic correctness of pronunciation” employed by actresses portraying Bernard Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle when she tries to impress Mrs. Higgins on their first outing.

Director Tamara Harvey has directed with appropriate speed and economy, embellishing the verbal humor mostly with only the visuals inherent in the text, but adding an excellent visual bit of humor for Miss Prism (and the handbag) in the final scene. She also wisely keeps things lively by keeping her actors on the move. Ms. Harvey has written delightful extended program notes, explaining and embellishing on references from the play. There is also a fascinating entry on Wilde’s apparent inspiration for a key element of his plot.

The Importance of Being Earnest
Elena Shaddow and
Caralyn Kozlowski

The unusual set design by Cameron Anderson is interesting, and will likely draw your attention. However, it is not always successful. For the first act, set in Algernon’s London morning-room, the back wall in medium and dark greens depicts giant wall size enlargements of ground plants and their leaves with black borders. There is a leafed shape opening at the center (backed by a green wall) which serves as a door. Even the stage floor is a dull green. Together with mostly dark wood furniture (with green upholstery for a divan and two chairs), it creates too dark, grim and distracting a setting. Things improve considerably in the second act which is set in the garden of Jack’s country estate. Half of the green panels are removed, leaving the enlarged plants as cut-outs, and, behind them, the back wall is a bright impressionist painting of gardens in bright watercolor greens and yellows with flecks of red, dark green and blue. For the third act, set in the morning-room of the country estate, the plant cutouts are interspersed with sections of library shelves. The large tomes each grouped with garishly bright covers of a single color are cartoon-like and distract attention from the play. The highly stylized costumes by Michael McAleer are matched to the sets, and are more felicitous when the action moves to the country.

There are no real people or believable events on the New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre stage. Nor are there meant to be. What we do have is an incisive and witty verbal farce of the most sophisticated kind. It is frothy, but chockablock with social observation and criticism. It is lunatic, but loaded with words and notions which brilliantly engage the mind. It is an evening with the puckishly erudite Oscar Wilde at the top of his form. It is the estimable The Importance of Being Earnest.

The Importance of Being Earnest continues performances through October 2, 2005 (Eves: Tues. 7:30 PM (excludingluding. 9/27); Wed.-Sat. 8 PM (excluding. 9/28); Sun. 7 PM (excluding. 10/2); Mats: Sat. & Sun. 2 PM) at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, (on the campus of Drew University), 36 Madison Street, Madison, 07940; box office: 973-408-5600; online at www.ShakespeareNJ.org

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde; directed by Tamara Harvey

Cast (In Order Of Appearance):
Lane, a Manservant………Richard Waddingham
Algernon Moncrieff…………………..Steve Wilson
Jack Worthing…………………………Gareth Saxe
Lady Bracknell………………………..Jane Altman
Gwendolyn…………………Caralyn Kozlowski
Miss Prism……………………….Susan Greenhill
Cecily……………………………...Elena Shaddow
Rev. Chasuble…………………………….Davis Hall
Merriman, a Butler……………………...Brian Schilb


Photo: Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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