Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
So it is with Aurora Theatre Company's production of the most famous and well-respected of Oscar Wilde's plays, the silly, snarky, satiricaland brilliantThe Importance of Being Earnest. Yes, its treatment of women is outdated, it relies on far-fetched coincidences and ridiculous plot twists, and people fall in love at first sight and propose marriage moments later, but clever lines come at you like the chocolates in that famous "I Love Lucy" episode: faster than you can comfortably manage, yet still overwhelming you with pleasure.
Director Josh Costello seems to recognize the challenges of staging a classic play that many in his audience will likely have already seen; he occasionally has his actors deliver their lines as asides to the audience or to interact with them in other ways, almost as a way of saying "let's not pretend you don't know what's going on here." He also pulls lovely comic performances from a skilled cast, especially Patrick Kelly Jones who plays Algernon Moncrieff, the charming rogue at the heart of the play. More on him in a moment. For now, let's catch the three of you who have never seen or read The Importance of Being Earnest up on the plot.
The above-mentioned Algernon is a British bachelor with time on his hands. His friend Ernest Worthing (Mohammad Shehata) has dropped by just before Algy's Aunt Augusta, the Lady Bracknell (Sharon Lockwood), and her daughter Gwendolen Fairfax (Anna Ishida) are to come for tea. But "Ernest" is actually Jack, and has only been using the name Ernest while in London. He is Jack at his country house, claiming Ernest is his town-dwelling wayward brother as a subterfuge to help him escape his very boring life in Shropshire. Ernest/Jack is in love with Gwendolen and has come to propose to her. When she and Lady Bracknell arrive, Algy conspires to leave Ernest/Jack and Gwendolen alone, and she happily accepts his proposal. For, as she says, "my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest." Of course, since Ernest was actually christened Jack, and Gwendolen has no truck with anyone of that name, the barriers to love are established and the rest of the play will be required to surmount them.
The story is toldas few plays are any morein three acts, and Aurora has provided for two "exceptionally brisk" intermissions. The evening runs to 2.5 hours, but I was never bored for even a moment.
As Algernon, Patrick Kelly Jones is marvelously restrained, with a droll delivery of even his most cutting remarks. He shares Wilde's bon mots almost as though they were glittering stars trailing in the wake of a magical creature: spectacular to us, ordinary to him. He smiles like a man unsheathing his sword for a battle in which he is supremely confident of victory. I could have watched him for another 2.5 hours.
He is well-supported by a solid cast. Though none captured my attention the way Jones did, all bring their own charm to the proceedings. Mohammad Shehata feels appropriately put-upon and abused by his friend, and delightfully besotted when in the presence of Anna Ishida's Gwendolen, who presents a marvelous sense of superiority, with perfect posture and regal bearing. As the Lady Bracknell, Sharon Lockwood can kill with the raise of a single eyebrow, nearly decapitating Ernest/Jack with a glare upon their first meeting. As Cecily Cardew, Ernest/Jack's ward, Gianna DiGregorio Rivera brings an appropriately youthful energy, playing sweetlybut effectivelywith both her scene partners and the audience. Michael Torres does a wonderfully dark, dour turn at Algernon's butler Lane, and turns up the comedy in act two with a more earnest portrayal of the Shropshire Reverend Canon Chasuble.
The show is lovely to look at, as well, with an elegant art nouveau set by Nina Ball, and terrific costuming by Maggie Whitaker. She dresses Algernon in a lovely violet suit (that somehow doesn't come off as foppish) in act one and a lovely plaid ensemble for acts two and three. Ernest/Jack's pale green vested suit in acts two and three is also a lovely complement to the character (even if Algernon quips that "I've never seen anyone take so long to dress with such little result."), and Gwendolen sports delicately patterned harem pants and a cropped jacket that accent both the sterner and softer aspects of her character.
Even if you've seen The Importance of Being Earnest, even more than once, there are still depths to be plumbed in Wilde's work, and Josh Costello, Aurora Theatre Companyand the cast they have assembledwill repay your attendance with a charming, comforting, captivating night of theatre.
The Importance of Being Earnest, through May 12, 2019, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $35-$70. Tickets and additional information are available at www.auroratheatre.org or by calling 510-843-4822.