Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Importance of Being Earnest
Director Ed Reggi turns Wilde's men-about-town Algernon and Jack (Will Bonfiglio and Pete Winfrey) into an affectionate if sly pair of cobras, politely spitting Wilde's witticisms like venom in act one, while Tom Murray as Lady Bracknell exercises that woman's regal rights as queen of the dowagersto marry off anybody she pleases, to anybody with a big enough bankroll. All three men shine, but Mr. Winfrey seems to take charge most admirably as things come to a boil, with unexpectedly smart maneuvering, compared to previous productions. Each great plot-reversal, and each great epigram, for all of them, rings proud and true, and even spontaneously.
But Jack's own demolition in those climactic minutes (reduced to asking, helplessly, "could you tell me who I am?") suggests Wilde's own foresight in predicting the rise of Absurdism (also in the play's sustained "mad tea-party" mood), which came to dawning more than fifty years before the genre itself. As later defined in the 1950s and '60s, Absurdism painted its characters into an existential corner governed by rules and obligations, tormented and trapped with their own ridiculous illusions. And the same thing happens here, fifty odd years earlier. But in Wilde's world, a charming corruption is always the ready release valve. In his witty banter, every conceit of constrained society is gleefully overturned in this 1895 script. It's a bold liberation from a suffocating Victorian order, even though that same remorseless authority would land Mr. Wilde in Newgate Prison, almost exactly three months after Earnest's premier. And that became Wilde's own absurd martyrdom, required to walk a treadmill to nowhere every day.
In this 21st century production, however, it's the women who seem especially well informed of the ridiculous strictures of behavior that came with the end of Romanticism. And the actresses in this case turn convention on its ear in a dozen new interpretations of great old jibes. Yes, Gwen Wotawa seems a bit innocent and naïve in act one, as fashionable Gwendolyn Fairfax (in love with Jack, who masquerades as Ernest when in London). But this Gwendolyn turns into an inferno of satirical heartbreak in act two, when she confronts her apparent romantic rival Cecily (the chirpy and hilarious Julia Crump). Both young women are beautifully choreographed throughout, and somehow treat their own share of immortal jokes like roller-coaster rides: shooting us up the first half, rising an octave or two in delivery, and then plunging us down through the punch-lines, with consistently exciting results.
Ruth Ezell, whom you may know from her fine documentary reporting on the local PBS TV station, gives a subtle and detailed performance as the prim Miss Prism, Cecily's private tutor. It's startling to see Miss Prism played with at least one foot in simple realismbut it lends extra power to the play's "big finish," when a 29-year-old life-and-death mystery is finally solved. Also in act two, Steve Springmeyer is remarkably affable and reassuring as Dr. Chasuble. As a result, the two provincial characters give us a great natural underpinning for the increasingly erratic behavior of the upper class.
Fine work, too, by Spender Kruse as two very different butlers: for the two homes, city and country, in acts one and two. But I always forget how much scene-changing there is in this showonly the first scene is set in London, and then there's a lengthy scene change to the country in the middle of act one and another in the middle of act two, to take us from a garden room to a morning room. I suppose it's always this way, when you want three nice sets. But if all this time spent in moving furniture could be cut in half, the pacing would improve too. Oddly, there's no set change during intermission, which is a huge technical error on the part of Mr. Wilde. Maybe it's his little "esthetic" joke on us all, 123 years later. Or perhaps it's just an odd aspect of Earnest that more traditional theatres have overcome through the use of flying sets, or even more backstage crew members (there appear to be four on hand here). Visually, it's still worthwhile, allowing for lots of movable set pieces by Lucas Shryock, garnished with a healthy sprinkling of fine costumes by Laura Hanson.
Insight Theatre's The Importance of Being Earnest, through July 22, 2018, at the Grandel Theatre, between the Fabulous Fox Theatre and Powell Symphony Hall, 3610 Grandel Square, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.insighttheatrecompany.com
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association