Thursday, May 10, 2012
Theater review: The Importance of Being Earnest at Artisan Center Theater in Hurst
Consistently satisfying and entertaining.
Artisan Center Theater is a pretty safe destination for those seeking straight-forward, energetic, and family-friendly community theater. They're admirably adaptable in utilizing their cozy theater-in-the-round space to put on everything from the popular Artie's Playhouse shows for the little ones to more ambitious youth productions such as last year's impressive Les Miserables. They are also accomplished at offering shows for grown-ups, and into this final category falls their most recent production, a delightful take on Oscar Wilde's satirical farce, The Importance of Being Earnest (playing through May 26). It does not disappoint.
The key to any successful production of Earnest is to keep up with Wilde's script which is overflowing with dry witticisms, snarky observational humor, and competitive banter. Actors who can't openly revel in the rhetorical gamesmanship will quickly sink under the weight of otherwise lengthy and labyrinthine dialogues that lead everywhere and go nowhere. The joy is the journey, so to speak, and when Jack and Algie and Cecily and Gwendolen aren't having fun, the audience certainly won't be either. Fortunately, the Artisan cast is up to the task and their audiences are in for a treat.
As the play begins, and best friends Algernon (Kyle Holt) and Jack (Brandon Jackson) compare strategies on how best to weasel out of their social obligations, there is a bit of a hitch as actors Holt and Jackson each struggle, with varying degrees of success, with their upper-class English accents. Accents are no easy task, but while both gentlemen leads visibly labor to get some of those words out in an acceptable form (should "facts" really rhyme with "locks?"), they are consistent enough that by the end of Act I it has become more a character trait than a distraction. That this Mr. Moncreiff and Mr. Worthing need elocution lessons simply feeds into their roles as bumbling but likeable trust-fund kids. Both actors are having snooty good fun, have a firm grasp on their challenging text, and thus overcome any deficiencies.
As much fun as Algernon and Jack are having, it is upon the entrance of Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell that actresses Natalie Berry and Pat Murphy hoist the production onto their demure shoulders and raise it to a new level. There are no garbled accents here. Ms. Berry steals the spotlight, somehow offsetting snide arrogance with a genteel charm as if she only despises the person to whom she happens to be speaking. To everyone else she is the embodiment of well-mannered grace. Pat Murphy's Lady Bracknell is equally entertaining - full of a maniacal prissiness, but never an all-out villain. Like every other character in "Earnest," she is a ridiculous person but well meaning.
The bar is raised yet again when Jack's young ward, Cecily (Jordan Marett) enters the story. And to the audience's good fortune, young Ms. Marett is a wide-eyed and determined match for Ms. Berry's Gwendolen. A key scene where the two square off over a potential husband captures the true essence of Oscar Wilde and demonstrates the power of his script. Each actress wields Wilde's text like weapons, managing to wage a fierce battle while never raising their voices, the most stinging physical maneuver consisting of an intentional botching of the tea-time snacks. It is a wonderfully charged moment that highlights the humor in Wilde's satire of Victorian society.
Satisfying supporting performances fill out the production. Travis Miller as the jolly wind-bag, Reverend Chasuble, Mary Miller as Merriman, the bewhiskered Harry Liston as manservant Lane, and the dotty warmth of Jackie Holt's Miss Prism, add little bits of flavor in the corners of the show.
Technically, the show is solid as well. Jason Leyva offers subtle lights that keep the show moving. Equally simple and effective are Leyva's set designs which create multiple venues with a minimum of set pieces at his disposal. And as with most Artisan productions, the nooks and crannies of the space are utilized effectively to create ambiance. Lovely scenes on the walls painted by Lily Stapp-Courtney variously guide us through drawing rooms and gardens without stealing the show from the proceedings onstage.
Possibly the single production element that does relish stealing a moment or two are the fun period costumes of Jennifer Cadenhead. In applying soft but bold pastels to Gwendolen and Cecily, trim but not-quite-shabby attire to Algernon and Jack, and clothing Lady Bracknell in a gaudy but elegant dress, Ms. Cadenhead manages to find the opposite dynamics in each individual character, and then manifest them in her costumes.
And a final mention to Steven Lindsay who is given the deceptively difficult task of directing a show like The Importance of Being Earnest: For a play whose defining feature is its biting script, it is a unique challenge to guide actors toward an effective understanding of that script so Wilde's humor comes through. To then create staging in-the-round that provides action enough to keep the eye engaged while never overshadowing that text is an extra difficulty. Lindsay handles it with delicate aplomb.
This production of The Importance of Being Earnest is exactly the sort of show one has come to expect from Artisan Theater Center. Not necessarily flashy, but consistently satisfying and entertaining.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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