“In all unimportant matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential. [And yet,] in all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential.” So quips Oscar Wilde in his “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young.”
Appropriately, style in all its lack of matter is exposed by the Yale Dramatic Association’s production of Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” directed with artistic bravado by Matthew Strother ’08.
When watching the three-act play at the Yale Rep in the midst of this Valentine’s season, one is drawn into a world of theatricality and continual façade reinforced by subtle gestures in movement, light and setting.
For those of you unfamiliar with the thematic presence of Oscar Wilde’s work, the play has been lauded as Wilde’s greatest farce, examining both social etiquette and the interplay of sexual relations with an air of rebelliousness.
As the first act opens, John Worthing (Bobby Allen ’09) and his dear friend Algernon Moncrieff (Brian Earp ’09) question their love, longing and loyalty towards the women with whom they engage. They claim that one never marries the women with whom one flirts, creating an elaborate web of emotional interest. Over tea and cucumber sandwiches, the two protagonists lament their own histories, while admitting to their “Bunburying” antics. Each man has taken an alternate identity in the country to relieve his duties in the city and has thereby come out the “classy” product of a stressful falsehood.
Amidst the banter, Gwendolen (Felicia Ricci ’08) and her aunt Lady Augusta (played in drag by Josh Odsess-Rubin ’08) arrive with every intention of marriage and heartbreak. The demure Gwendolen quickly falls shadow to her boisterous aunt. Navigating the careful line between necessitated comedy and an insightful theatrical move, Odsess-Rubin as Lady Augusta calls attention to the “ultimate expression of the extent to which we hide our falsities behind our layers,” Strother said in an interview after the show.
Next, we find that an unpredictable chain of events has led one man to court his brother’s love in the claims of being “earnest.” Gwendolen and Cecily (Alexandra Trow ’09) are ignited to flicker between enemies and the best of friends, portraying domineering and classy characters, respectively. Ricci and Trow — perhaps not in their best element when dwarfed by the overwhelming presence of the male actors — shine brightest when they play off each other in the scenes they share.
The most remarkable element of “Earnest,” though, is the set designed by Emily Appelbaum ’09, which features three flying window panes above a sitting room. The set’s shallow superficiality exposes bookcases, pianos and the uncertain secrets of a functioning household trapped in the lonely position between image and reality. The set — at first glance underwhelming — was designed to keep the focus on the language of the play rather than on the décor of the time piece, Strother said. Aesthetics falls to “higher ethics” amidst insincerity and signs of triviality.
While transitions between scenes, distracting in their lack of smoothness, could be improved upon, the acting is so strong, the language so well-presented and delivered, that Dramat’s stylish “Earnest” stands up and takes notice as a production sincerely worthy of Wilde’s classic comedy.