Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The plot begins when Algernon and his best friend John discover that they both have created alternative identities as a way to avoid any unwanted social obligations. Ernest is the fictitious brother John has crafted so he can go by one identity in the city and another in the country. Algernon has invented a sickly man named Bunbury that he frequently says is ill and that he has to visit whenever he wants to skirt his social responsibilities. However, when romance enters the picture, the two friends discover that their use of these identities creates a whole set of problems. Algernon's niece Gwendolen has fallen in love with Ernest, and he with her, though her mother Lady Bracknell doesn't approve of the match due to his questionable past. When Algernon learns that John has a young ward named Cecily, his interest is piqued and he makes it his mission to meet her. But Algernon can't meet her as himself, so why not pretend to be Ernest? And, while John is prepared to reveal who he truly is to Gwendolen, she makes it clear to him that she could only love someone named Ernest, as a name like John or Jack is just too plainsomething that Cecily also proclaims to Algernon.
Wilde's plot is incredibly intricate, though easy to follow, and entirely hilarious. However, it does take about 10 or 15 minutes for everything to kick into gear so, if you've never seen this play before, don't fret if the opening moments seem a bit slow, overly talkative or confusing. Wilde expertly interweaves mistaken identities, confusion, and the need to get someone's permission in order to marry, along with the romantic but silly notice that a woman would only marry a man with a specific name, to both satirize and romanticize the social rules and requirements of the period.
Hale's cast, under Cambrian James' terrific direction, does a very good job of instilling the entire production with a heightened sense of hijinks. Spencer Dooley and Aaron Blanco make a fine pair of friends as Algernon and John, respectively. Dooley is superb as Algernon. He effortlessly instills the role with a combination of wit, charm and cleverness, along with whimsical mannerisms, heightened body language, and expressive gestures that tie in perfectly with the eccentric, self-centered nature of the character. Blanco does a good job portraying the respectability, well-mannered and romantic nature of John. The sense of glee he portrays when talking about his alter-ego as well as the romance he exudes are all infused with charm. However, a few of the moments of frustration the usually level-headed John suffers at the hands of Lady Bracknell almost cross over into a too modern style of acting that isn't quite in synch with the heightened, elegant style of the rest of the cast. These hot-headed and almost too comically broad and over the top outbursts are the only small quibble I have with an otherwise very fine performance.
Laura Soldan is exceptional as Lady Bracknell. She brings a period perfect, straightforward take on the overbearing, insufferable and forceful woman who holds respectability, adherence to the correct form, and proper upbringing in the highest regard. Through Soldan's exquisite manner, gestures and speech we see that Lady Bracknell clearly believes that one must only do what is socially acceptable. Of course, the right combination of a large sum of money and the proper upbringing trumps everything. Shelby Daeffler and Clara Bentz bring warmth, humor and a shot of energy to the production as Gwendolen and Cecily, respectively. They are both delivering stellar portrayals with a fun and frenzied sense of emotion. Daeffler expertly shows Gwendolen's idealistic, though completely pretentious nature while Bentz is exquisitely adept in her ability to portray Cecily's budding maturity while also making us see that this is an artistic woman who relishes living in the fantasy world she has created. The comically rich duo of Ami Porter and Matthew Harris, playing Cecily's governess and the clergyman who serves as the rector on John's country estate, provide some fun moments as a flirty couple who have long pinned for each other. As the two manservants in the show, Nathan Spector affects both drollness and a "seen it all" mentality and proves that even small parts in a classic work can receive big laughs when delivered correctly.
Cambrian James' direction on Brian Daily's static and simple yet beautiful set works well to make sure the comedic moments pop without skirting the charm and romance of the piece. Mary Atkinson's costumes are sumptuous, with a high level of elegance and style that effectively match Wilde's prose, with excellent suits for the men and stunning gowns for the ladies.
Wilde's play is chock full of mistaken identities, confusion, tension, English social rules, and witty language. Hale Centre Theatre's production of this classic comedy is an infectious, lovely and comically delicious bonbon.
The Importance of Being Earnest, through May 12th, 2018, with performances at The Hale Centre Theatre, 50 W. Page Avenue, Gilbert AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling (480) 497-1181.
Directed by Cambrian James