England’s Wilde WestLeave a Comment
The brief musical interludes you hear during the set changes in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” the Dramat’s Fall Ex which opened Thursday night, are mostly classical piano — the sort of whimsical, evocative music most strongly associated, at least in this reviewer’s millennial mind, with Harry Potter movies. The selections are oddly sentimental for so ruthlessly witty a play, but they also effectively transport the audience to 19th-century England, so they do the trick.
But as the lights come up post-intermission, the tinkling piano notes are not the work of Handel or Purcell: We hear an instrumental version of Kanye West’s “All of the Lights,” an inspired choice in that it locates Wilde’s analog in contemporary pop culture: Despite his admiration of Steve Jobs, Kanye’s real forerunner is Oscar Wilde. Plays don’t have mass appeal today, and hip-hop didn’t exist in 1895, but Wilde, like West, was an unapologetic aesthete and brazen cultural critic whose flamboyance compensated for a defect of seriousness. Crass sexual humor is another commonality.
Perhaps this production is a little more West than Wilde. Where British humor is usually associated with a deadpan delivery reflective of that society’s stiff upper lip, West is blunt, passionate and often angry. He’s a renowned entertainer and also a bit of a clown. Likewise, under Miranda Rizzolo’s direction, this cast hollers, shrieks, rolls their eyes, jumps onto furniture and otherwise hams it up. Which isn’t to say it’s bad. Rather, it’s a joy to watch, and there are wonderfully choreographed and tremendously energetic scenes. The actors have an exaggerated physicality: The women, for example, are forever holding things out toward men, haughtily looking the other direction, expecting the contents to be taken off their hands. Appropriately enough, the actors mostly stick to American accents. Some speak with a faux-British elocution, and one or two veer into and out of nationalities.
Algernon and Jack, played by Otis Blum ’15 and Adam Lohman ’18 respectively, make a lively and likeable pair as two young bachelors, each romantically interested in a relative of the other. Gwendolyn, Algernon’s cousin, played by Lauren Modiano ’17, illuminates the stage with her strong comic presence (even if she does rely a little too much on tics, like screwball facial expressions and nervously fast talking). Lucy Fleming ’15 is convincing as Cecily, Ernest’s ward, bringing to her character the apathetic affect of a text-messaging teen. The pastor (Skyler Ross ’16) has a pleasantly Woody Allen-ish demeanor.
There’s a standout here, however — one character whose sterling portrayal is beyond all reproach: Lady Bracknell. Played in drag by Eric Sirakian ’15, Bracknell is the play’s most enduring creation, and Sirakian’s performance is a memorable blend of terrifying and preposterous. His icy, disgusted glares and moral outrage are perfectly calibrated.
“Earnest” stands the test of time. Sure, barbs directed at three-volume novels or society dinner parties can fall flat, but themes of hypocrisy, social climbing, romantic love, sex and religion have no expiration date. Not many plays are funnier.
In a play overflowing with aphorisms, epigrams, zingers and disses — exposing pomposity at every turn — the cloying last line, famously impossible to pull off, feels like a final “f– you” from Wilde, not to the characters but, at long last, to the audience. From Wild, though, it feels like a heartfelt send-off. And as the lights go down on the awkward silence that follows, one feels like Cecily when she says, in a line brimming with the play’s signature irony, “The suspense is terrible; I hope it lasts.”