Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 13, 2011
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Brian Bedford. Set & costume design by Desmond Heeley. Lighting design by Duane Schuler. Sound design by Drew Levy. Original music by Berthold Carrière. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Dialect Consultant Elizabeth Smith. Cast: Brian Bedford, with Paxton Whitehead, Santino Fontana, David Furr, Tim MacDonald, Paul O’Brien, Charlotte Parry, Sara Topham, Amanda Leigh Cobb, and Dana Ivey.
I must say upfront that I’ve never understood the appeal of Lady Bracknell to male actors. The role is an out-of-control locomotive carved from ice, true, barreling so nonstop through two scenes of propriety-pronouncing grandeur that it can’t even be bothered to stop by in the second of the play’s three acts. In terms of bravura parts, it doesn’t rate with the likes of, say, Hamlet, which has received more than its share of high-profile female match-ups. But for whatever reason, men seem to play it almost as often as women do, which usually has the side-effect of making the role, well, a drag on what is otherwise wall-to-wall-buoyancy (and the chief reason I usually don’t appreciate the gimmick). The refreshing thing this time around that in playing the august Augusta, Brian Bedford doesn’t make the show about him — which, since he’s also the director, is a very good thing.
This is not to say he vanishes into the gender — he doesn’t try to any real degree — but he disappears utterly into the character. Able (and willing) to gaze down anyone in her path, or to put them through an inquiry ringer that would leave the Spanish Inquisition fuming with envy, Bedford’s Bracknell comes across as every bit the mistress of all that is, or at least should be, right in the world. If her sharp intakes of breath occasionally make her look as though she’s swallowed a pint of lemon juice, and her more pomp-filled paradings suggest an on-the-edge woman struggling to maintain her elevated stature, so much the better. She has affairs to tend to, and relationships to destroy (or occasionally bless), and nothing will get in her way.
Bedford (who directed and played this role in this production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario in 2009) conveys all this with the impeccable grace, timing, and pacing that identify the best Lady Bracknells on stage or screen, and enhance the whole without holding the show hostage. After all, Lady Bracknell is not the fulcrum of the story, per se. It turns on her worldview, and those who embrace or repudiate it, but its meat is provided almost entirely by others. This is why Bedford’s richly generous performance is exceeded only by his casting of several other performers who match his focus and intensity, thus letting this 1895 “trivial comedy for serious people,” as Wilde subtitled it, feel as fresh and as funny as if it were written in 2010.
Fontana displays the opposite kind of personality, showing Algernon as the playful sport willing to abide by civilized dicta just long enough to have fun with the right people. His eyes always glowing with a mischievous gleam that hint at his viewing even the most intricate vexations as opportunities, Fontana communicates nothing less than absolute sincerity. This both strengthens and makes more palatable his caddish behavior — his Algernon is the type you want to smack, but would likely end up having tea with (though get to the muffins before he does). Yet when Algernon develops true feelings for Cecily, Fontana’s comic glow changes into an equally deep romantic ardor that’s genuinely threatened (and impeded) by his masquerade. You accept his own confliction because, from the beginning, you’ve seen Algernon as everything at once, even the parts he tries so hard to hide.
Sparkling though Furr and Fontana may be individually, they ignite explosive mayhem together, the production giddily flourishing when they’re let loose to make the most of it. But when their betrotheds take over, late in the second act and early in the third, a similar chemistry does not occur. Topham is pert and pretty, but is renting her high-aiming airs rather than owning them; her starched-neck performance lacks the suppleness needed to reveal an actual heart within the business-minded Gwendolen. Parry possesses a natural energy, but little of the carefree, optimistic innocence that Cecily needs to tame Algernon and take full ownership of herself. Topham and Parry are a bit better together than apart, their strengths complementing each other nicely, but they still register largely as waxworks on holiday from Madame Tussauds.
Far defter portrayals come from Dana Ivey as the flappable Miss Prism, Cecily’s addle-brained governess; Paul O’Brien as Algernon’s vermouth-dry butler, Lane; and Paxton Whitehead, as the Reverend Chasuble, whose knack for christening becomes a major plot point. (Gwendolen and Cecily are both determined to marry a man named Ernest.) They succeed because they unlock in these otherwise limited characters an aura of plaintive urgency that, when contrasted with the dire deception-borne situations of Jack and Algernon, become all the funnier. There’s room for picture-postcard fantasy only in Desmond Heeley’s exquisitely (and imaginatively) appointed sets and costumes: Everything else must be resolutely real, even if it’s the silliest stuff on Earth.
Bedford’s commitment to that same precept, as both actor and director, ensures that this Importance of Being Earnest has the rock-solid center it needs at all times. The evening’s perfect pacing bolsters all the comedy it comes in contact with, and since Bedford’s role consists of little else, he’s the prime beneficiary. While I can’t say he convinced me that Lady Bracknell is really better off being played by a man, he did convince me of everything else, and that’s no small achievement in a play that so depends on eye-rolling misunderstandings and coincidences. With Bedford overseeing things, you’re guaranteed the very highest level of high comedy, pushed to the furthest extents of wit and wonderment that Wilde’s play allows. It’s even, dare I say, so refined, that even Lady Bracknell herself would approve.