Review: The Importance of Being Earnest by Mary Moody Northen Theatre
by Michael Meigs
The delightful wit and frivolity of Oscar Wilde's conceit for this play and the immense seriousness his characters apply to it make The Importance of Being Earnest an enduring favorite. This is the fourth staging of the work in the region since I began writing about theatre nearly five years ago, and it never grows stale. Wilde is not Shakespeare, but his work has a similar vitality and adaptability. His razor-sharp teasing of a distinct sector of English society seems bright and new each time I see it, and the actors deliver it with refreshingly personal modulations.
The eligible young ladies offer another finely modulated pair. Hannah Marie Fonder as Gwendolyn has the precisely controlled chill of the very best of society, and her ice-cream elegance plays well against Sophia Franzella as Cecily, the energetic young brunette on the estate who's bored with her German lessons and eminently ready to escape if only a suitor should come calling.
And though they're not paired in the play, Barbara Chisholm and Robert Faires are paired in real life, and they provide quite different comic portrayals that are informed, vivid and verisimilar. I've carried in memory for years the aged Dame Edith Evans' haughtily crushing portrayal of the no-nonsense Lady Bracknell in a filmed version, and I was intrigued to see how Chisholm would manage one of the most adamantly comic characters of the stage. The answer, in short, is that she carries it off superbly. This Lady Bracknell is no oldie and by no means is she sexless; Chisholm delivers the ferociousness, the conviction and the dame's completely unapologetic snobbishness. And she's attractive, to boot; the wonderfully towering chapeaux provided by costume designer T'Cie Mancuso are so much a part of the character that one imagines them completely inseparable from the personality.
In the role of the affably shy Rev. Dr. Chasuble, erudite and given to ecclesiastical esoterica, Robert Faires seems to be doing a sly tease of himself. A knowledgeable and perceptive writer about Austin arts and particularly about the theatre, he's just as modest as Chasuble and a great deal more talented. It's quite satisfying to see him blink and start and show a slightly goofy embarrassment when he comes into contact with the maiden governess Miss Prism. Prism turns out to be the key to the various mysteries brought together and solved with a flourish in the last act, and Irene White gives her an appropriately fussy and blushing persona.
Director Robichaux's use of the household staff serves to set and maintain the surroundings quite tidily, and Curtis Allmon shines for his one brief moment as Lane the butler, covering up for his employer. And the set design by Ia Ensterä is clean, spare, and soaring.
This play is as toothsome as a plate of scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam. My one request would have been, "Please, may I have some more?" By that, I mean that I'd really like to have seen more. A major vexation with the production was the fact that all too often Robichaux's blocking left me with the impression that although I was fortunate enough to be sitting on the front row, I felt as if I was at the bar in a pub while the real action was going on in the tea room next door.
Moving actors about on a stage viewed from all 360 degrees of the surroundings is necessarily a challenge. Some swath of the audience is inevitably going to be looking at the back of an actor's head. The director manages quite well with Algy and Jack, who as lithe young fellows can pop up and down and stride around, but ladies of the better sort are not quite as free. We entirely missed the the gag as Cecily sugars Gwendolyn's tea (a three-step joke, each evolution entirely invisible to us although only the two women were on the stage). It did not help in the least that during the first act the director planted a divan in the middle of the south side of the square stage and situated it so a quarter of the audience seemed to be peering almost uninterruptedly at Lady Bracknell's back. That station could have at least been placed at one of the corners between the cardinal points of the compass -- corresponding to an unpopulated aisle of the playing space.
And at the thrilling finale, when the grande dame recognizes the fugitive governess and freezes her with a stentorian "Prism!!", the stage was sufficiently crowded and Prism was sufficiently distant and well below the playing area that we might as well have been listening to that comic climax on the intercom.
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