Baltimore’s vibrant and growing Chesapeake Shakespeare Company looks comfortable indeed inside its gorgeous new digs on South Calvert Street. If only it looked as comfortable inhabiting the world of Oscar Wilde with its current staging of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Tackling the texts of Shakespeare for two decades would seem more than enough preparation for CSC to take on Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people.” For the most part, its cast seems up to the challenge. The fine actors see to it that there is no shortage of laughter cascading from the thrust stage’s three terraced walls of spectators.
But there is such an emphasis placed on movement here — sometimes movement for its own sake — that it distracts from Wilde’s subtler brand of social satire. Wilde’s wordy wit calls for a higher level of composure and decorum just to register properly.
Director Erin Bone Steele seems determined to combat any possible ADD in the audience by keeping everyone on stage rushing up and down the boards all evening. Even Algernon, the Wildean ideal of the cynical and aloof drawing room wit, comes off as high-strung and jumpy in this production.
Part of what makes Wilde’s characters laughable is that they are so rooted in what they claim to believe. The satire flows from their silly and mannered obstinate refusal to be budged by logic, emotion or common sense. So it is jarring to see them rushing, hopping, even skipping around the stage in the expression of passions they would probably not admit to feeling.
The bright stars of this staging are the ones who seem to be totally unaware that they are being foolish or adorable. Lizzi Albert is everything one could want in a Cecily Cardew — dreamy enough to ghost-write love letters to herself from a man she has never seen, yet naive enough to think she is the soul of level-headed pragmatism.
Leslie Malin’s Lady Bracknell also helps to bring the action back into the Victorian era as the self-proclaimed arbiter of social correctness — however skewed it might appear to others.
Travis Hudson brings the affably effete John Worthing into better focus by the second half of the play, when he is forced to face the consequences of his masquerade. Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly as her dim bulb daughter Gwendolyn, and Lisa Hodsoll as the easily distracted governess Miss Prism, also treat the audience to a sizable portion of its laughs.
As much as I found the portrayal of Algernon out of whack here, there is much to appreciate about Joe Brack’s energetic comedy performance in the role. But Director Stone should at the least tone down his upstaging shenangians when other actors are delivering their lines.
Costume Designer Kristina Lambdin successfully evokes the fashionable fin de siècle period with obvious limited resources. However, excessively wrinkled coats and trousers do not make a favorable first impression in such close, well lighted confines. Technical Director Daniel O’Brien gets credit for keeping the full battery of theatrical effects firing at professional capacity.
Running Time: two and a half hours, with one intermission.
The Importance of Being Earnest plays through March 22, 2015 Chesapeake Shakespeare Company Theatre – 7 South Calvert Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 244-5870, or purchase them online.