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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

The Importance of Being Earnest


David Hutchison and James Ijames
Photo by Luis Fernando Rodriguez
One might think that for Mauckingbird Theatre Company, a company that specializes in gay-themed theatre, just doing a play by Oscar Wilde would be enough to satisfy its mission. But Mauckingbird goes a step further with its new production of Wilde's most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, by transforming the play's straight romances into gay ones. Director Peter Reynolds' staging gets too campy for its own good at times, and it sabotages one of its most important characters; but for the most part, this is an excellent production, with a buoyant, infectious spirit that can't help but bring a smile to your face.

Wilde's 1895 play, subtitled "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People," satirizes the English preoccupation with class by telling the story of Jack and Algernon, two society gentlemen who must pretend to be named "Earnest" because the ladies they love vow only to love men with that name. In Mauckingbird's version, the objects of Jack and Algy's affections have been changed into men, but oddly, the transformed characters still bear the names Gwendolen and Cecily. (Then again, if you accept the play's ridiculous premise, the feminine names shouldn't be much of a hurdle.)

James Ijames' flamboyant Algy is an eye-rolling delight, never taking a moment of this high-class nonsense seriously, while Brent Knobloch and David Hutchison play Gwendolen and Cecily with a lot of high-pitched giggles and affected poses. These three tend to overdo the show's camp element; when Knobloch and Hutchison coo girlishly and clasp their hands to their faces at the slightest provocation, this Earnest nearly goes off the rails. But these excesses are few, and they get laughs—which, in a Wilde play, is never bad. Chancellor Dean's stern but charismatic Jack is a welcome counterbalance to the production's sillier aspects. Sarah Doherty steals her scenes as the timid and panicked tutor Miss Prism and, fittingly, Miss Prism's romantic match, Rev. Dr. Chasuble, is played by a woman (Lindsay Mauck).

But there's an odd person out in this winning ensemble: Gwendolen's imposing and imperious mother, Lady Bracknell—probably Wilde's greatest comic creation. Nancy Boykin does a fine job in the role, but she's overshadowed by the other actors and the eccentric spins they give their characters. Also, seeing the smug, intolerant and propriety-obsessed Lady Bracknell so accepting of gay marriage requires a huge suspension of disbelief. If you're going to weaken Lady Bracknell, why do Earnest at all?

Everyone in Maukingbird's production does a good job, but the real standout is someone we never see onstage—costume designer Marie Anne Chiment. From a handsome gown for Lady Bracknell, to a classy suit-and-vest combo for Gwendolen, to a series of knockout costumes for Algernon (everything from an Arab-style fez-and-robe combo for lounging at home to a pink pinstripe suit for visits to the country), Chiment keeps outdoing herself. The elegance of her designs is a perfect match for the timeless wit of Wilde's play.

With its outlandish extravagances, Mauckingbird's Importance of Being Earnest goes over the top at times—and with its gender changes, it shows that 19th century characters and 21st century sensibilities aren't always a smooth fit. But despite a few hiccups, this Earnest is never less than funny and enjoyable.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs through August 25, 2013, and is presented by Mauckingbird Theatre Company at the Off-Broad Street Theater at First Baptist Church, 1636 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $25, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available by calling the box office at (215) 923-8909 or online at www.Mauckingbird.org.

The Importance of Being Earnest
By Oscar Wilde
Directed by Peter Reynolds
Costume Design... Marie Anne Chiment
Lighting Design... Jessica Wallace
Set Design … Zachary Limbert
Stage Manager... Michael Ambler

Cast:
Merriman… Mitchell Bloom
Lady Bracknell… Nancy Boykin
Lane… Darryl Gene Daughtry, Jr.
Jack Worthing… Chancellor Dean
Miss Prism… Sarah Doherty
Cecily Cardew… David Huthison
Algernon Moncrieff… James Ijames
Gwendolen Fairax… Brent Knobloch
Rev. Dr. Chasuble… Lindsay Mauck


-- Tim Dunleavy



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