Monday, October 10, 2011
Theater review: The Importance of Being Earnest at Bath House Cultural Center in Dallas
Despite some flubs, the actors had the audience laughing throughout the evening.
116 years ago amidst much controversy, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest hit the stage for the first time. A great testimony to Wilde's writing is that the play still elicits spontaneous laughter and audience response over a century later.
In this "trivial comedy for serious people" are so many witticisms, puns, unexpected turns, and creative use of language that you can see it repeatedly and find something new to celebrate with each viewing. Case in point, I played Algernon Moncrieff many years ago and have seen the show many times. I consider myself to be intimately familiar with this particular work. Yet at WingSpan Theatre Company's revival of the play (playing at Bath House Cultural Center through October 22) I found myself delighted and laughing at Wilde's wit all over again.
The play centers on Jack Worthing, who goes by the name "Earnest" while in town, and "Jack" while home in the country. His friends and family in the country think that Jack must go into town to deal with his wickedly errant brother named Earnest. In the country, Jack has many responsibilities as a landowner and the guardian of his young ward, Cecily. As a result of all this pressure, Jack welcomes the opportunity to go into town to take the identity of Earnest and leave all that seriousness behind. Jack's good friend in town is the perpetually irresponsible bachelor Algernon Moncrieff. Algernon has a similar ruse. He has a fictitious friend named Bunberry who is frequently ill and resides in the country. This comes in quite handy for Algernon when he needs to escape undesirable social obligations in town.
The play chronicles what happens when these two men finally have to deal with the inevitability of their double lives catching up to them – as double lives are wont to do.
Susan Sargeant directed this production for WingSpan Theatre Company. The company used the Bath House Cultural Center on White Rock Lake as their venue. This was a unique and beautiful location. My wife and I came a bit early and enjoyed watching the sunset over the lake before we took our seats for the show. If you have the time to do so, I encourage you to do the same!
The first thing that struck me when I walked into the theatre was the set design. This was a small, intimate venue with limited space. Despite those strictures, Rodney Dobbs did a fantastic job creating a beautiful Victorian living room. The furniture was period appropriate, and the props selected by Robin Daffinee Coulonge were spot-on. It is always a concern in a period piece that the props and furniture might be anachronistic and distracting. Thankfully, that was not the case here.
There were three scene changes in this production. Rodney Dobbs and his crew masterfully handled them all. The garden scene gave us the illusion of space with creative use of a rear scrim and lighting designed by Dan Schoedel. As I watched the scene changes during the intermissions (yes, there were two), I was impressed by the smoothness of the process as managed by Maggie Belanger and her team. The final product for each and every scene was perfect. The set was suitable for each scene, non-distracting, and tastefully presented. Excellent work was provided by this production staff.
Another impressive production element was the amazing work Barbara C. Cox did with the costuming. Everything was period specific, and great attention to detail was spent in everything from the fan clasped to Lady Bracknell's dress to the spats on Dr. Chasuble's boots. The only distraction was with Gwendolen Fairfax's costume in the first act. The poof of her sleeves was a bit much, and was a distraction. I actually heard some other theatergoers make a similar comment after the scene so I knew I wasn't alone. Thankfully, in the second and third acts her costume was not distracting. All-in-all, costume design and execution was on par with a Broadway or national tour production.
Throughout the evening there were multiple line flubs by virtually everyone that could easily be chalked-up to opening night nervousness. Despite these flubs, the actors had the audience laughing throughout the evening.
Algernon Moncrieff, played by C. Ryan Glenn, was a pleasure to watch. The program states that he was a relative newcomer to the Dallas theater scene but I hope he becomes an active member of this community. He made this role his own and was eminently believable throughout the evening. His sense of comic timing was beyond reproach, and his descent from confirmed bachelor who loathed the concept of marriage to a man desperately needing to be married was executed convincingly. I also respect a man who was willing to grow muttonchops and a mustache for a role.
Our titular character Jack "Earnest" Worthing was played by Andrew Milbourn. In Act I, Milbourn seemed very nervous and his movements and characterizations mechanical, jerky and overstated. This was made even more evident in moments of physical comedy with Glenn as Algernon. As the evening progressed Milbourn seemed to become more comfortable with his role and the jerky mannerisms diminished. There were moments where Milbourn shone but his performance was somewhat inconsistent throughout the evening. I am confident that once the opening night jitters are behind him he will do a fine job. He was clearly capable of doing so. Thankfully, due to the strength of Wilde's script and Milbourn's fellow actors, the show was a great success despite rocky moments.
Lady Bracknell, portrayed by Nancy Sherrard, beautifully conveyed the rigid judgmentalism of the aristocracy. Her shock at the sheer baseness of Worthing's tale was represented perfectly. Sherrard's timing, facial expressions and physical carriage accomplished exactly what Wilde would have liked. One of the highlights of the evening was her demanding interview with Worthing in order to determine his suitability as a suitor for Gwendolen. Kudos goes to Ms. Sherrard and Susan Sargeant for capturing this iconic role so well.
Miss Prism, played by Lorna Woodford, and Rev. Chasuble, played by Francis Fuselier, were also to be commended for their work. They had the audience rooting for their unlikely yet inevitable romance. Woodford also played very well opposite her young student, Cecily Cardew. Ben Bryant as the manservant Lane in London and the butler Merriman in the country was also a delight. Both parts as played by Bryant could easily have been lost in a play so full of animated and colorful characters. However, Bryant made his character an essential part of the production, particularly as Merriman. His unspoken reactions and facial expressions took the comedy to the next level. In addition, he assisted with the scene changes during the intermissions, never breaking character. I didn't see Ben Bryant out there moving furniture, I saw Mr. Worthing's manservant shuffling about, ensuring the set was handled properly. Well done.
Finally we had our two leading ladies. Lisa Schreiner as the Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax was wonderful. Her moments playing against Milbourn were masterful. Although this was a production filled with many high points and memorable moments, the dialogue between Schreiner and Jessica Renee Russell as Cecily Cardew stole the show. These two strikingly beautiful young ladies had all of us on the edges of our seats as we waited for the penny to drop – And we were not disappointed!
I had the opportunity to review Jessica Renee Russell in her role as Celie in Language of Angels, presented at Theatre Three earlier this year. In that review I stated that we saw far too little of Russell in that role, but what we did see was electrifying. My suspicions were validated Thursday evening as I watched Russell portray Cecily Cardew. She was flawless in this role. She captured the spirit of a pure and sheltered young girl absolutely set aquiver at the prospect of wickedness. Whether she was writing great truths in her diary or doing anything to avoid studying German, Russell gave the part her all. The two strongest performances of the evening went to Russell as Celie and Glenn as Algernon. Consistently excellent work was seen from both of them throughout the evening.
I recommend this production heartily and without reservation. If you have an evening free in the coming weeks, I exhort you to head out to White Rock Lake and discover the vital Importance of Being Earnest.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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