When one is in town one amuses oneself, when one is in the country one amuses other people, and whether you be from the town or the country you’ll be amusing and amused as The Maryland Ensemble Theatre presents Oscar Wilde’s hilariously high-brow comedy of errors – The Importance of Being Earnest. Subtitled, and rightly so – ‘a trivial comedy for serious people’ – Wilde’s visionary work that blends all the elements of slapstick, mistaken identities, tongue-in-cheek wit, and a cataclysm of other entertaining forces comes to live under the skillful guidance of Director Joe Brady. A romping good parlor comedy, that takes to the garden for a few scenes, this riveting and uproarious piece of theatre has a good chuckle embedded deep within its existence for all who come to see it.
Director Joe Brady ensures that Wilde’s presence radiates throughout the production; not only metaphorically but also literally with the enormous posters of the playwright’s face placed strategically throughout the theatre. Brady’s notion of keeping the playwright ever-present translates well into the performance with the successful ‘bromance’ that develops between Algernon and Jack. Brady toes the fine line of playing scenes for truth while still allowing them to breathe with a flare of melodrama to keep them wildly entertaining for the audience. Working with Sound Designer Steven Younkins to underscore key moments of peak hysteria with an assortment of thematically fitting sounds, Brady coaxes emotional hilarity from scenes that might otherwise go unnoticed. Brady’s visions are well articulated and executed into the performance as a whole making for an intriguing and enjoyable rendition of this classic work.
Scenic Designer Tad Janes highlights the finer points of posh city life in 1895 London as well as the charming, albeit quaint, country life. With a rotating upright to depict indoors and outdoors in a subtle fashion Janes calls attention to the differences in the two localities in a subtle manner. Simplistic yet elegant furnishings, such as the lavish – yet tasteful – chaise lounge chair, add an air of aristocracy to the setting.
Costume Designer Tirza Fogle outfits the ensemble with resplendent designs most appropriate for a day out ‘bunburying.’ From the extravagant, albeit eccentric, dresses bestowed upon Lady Bracknell to the lovely lacy numbers settled onto Cecily and Gwendolen; Fogle captures the essence of 1895 couture in her designs. The dapper duds reserved for the dashing dans are equally as impressive; a pressed velvet housecoat of the richest burgundy for Algernon and a striped golden chocolate mocha suit for Earnest; a fine image reflecting their equally fine lifestyles.
The cast’s most successful venture in this production is their ability to find the naturally occurring humor in the play and augment it to epic proportions. Working together as an ensemble, the cast finds cleverly inspired ways to sling zingers at one another throughout the performance, be it physical jabs, a facial expression or frozen response, or simply the way in which they turn a phrase; the hilarity is running in high streams with the most organic feel to it.
Governing over the bumbling, bunburying, and general boyish shenanigans that occur throughout this show is the haughty and stalwart Lady Bracknell (Julie Herber). Like a pillar of unyielding conscience, Herber takes to the character like a swan to the water; graceful with a vicious bite. Her accent alone is enough to set the audience into peels of laughter, and the more serious she blusters about a situation the more hilarious it becomes to watch her. Living up to the proclaimed moniker of Gorgon, Herber becomes a brilliant social monster that carries a good deal of the show’s funnier lines in her brisque bustling walk. Sniping with poise has never been more amusing than with Herber’s portrayal of the iconic character.
The softer side of the feminine coin comes twofold in this production: Cecily Cardew (Shea-Mikal Green), and Gwendolen Fairfax (Courtney McLaughlin). The deliciously delicate flowers of femininity have courageously coarse sides as well; a rousing good time from these dynamic dames in training. Green is as frenetic and flighty as the show is long, eager and sprightly with a contagious bounce in her step while McLaughlin’s character is much more reserved but still gently flowing with charm in her own right.
The notable scene in the garden between them is an absolute scream. Green and McLaughlin take timid steps into the discordant avalanche that ends in a tumultuous verbal brawl, each in turn slinging salacious insults at one another in a rakish fashion befitting two snakes in a pit. Both Green and McLaughlin pair well with their men, each in turn having wild affections to display toward their Earnest. They are two brilliant actresses undertaking two cleverly penned female roles and a splendid addition to the show.
And for as sisterly sweet as the girls play their roles, the boys are that much more embedded into their bromance; Algernon (Steve Custer) and Jack (Matt Kline) thick as thieves who would just as soon stab each other in the back as call each other brother. Custer and Kline are the perfect comic duo for this performance and have an easily visible working knowledge of each others sense of comedy, physicaly expressions and overall stage presence. The scenes that involve the pair going at each other, be it verbally or physically, keeps the audience roaring with laughter, particularly a scene with muffins. Constantly in each others faces, Custer and Kline really work the subtly of Wilde’s personality into each of their characters and both actors have a solid grip on Wilde’s intricately crafted story.
Kline has a firmly polished accent that adds a second skin to Jack/Earnest character, making him that much more enjoyable. His interactions with the other performers are executed with impeccable timing and a sharp understanding of how to actively listen in a scene. His bombastic nature, particularly when it comes to fighting with Algernon, is the highlight of his performance – a true thespian living presently in the moment.
Custer brings a rare focus to the haughty character of Algernon, finding little moments and gestures that authenticate the character as his own. It’s Custer’s silent responses that are his most amusing moments, often biting his tongue with a vivid facial expression in moments where he is without dialogue. His theatrical approach to teasing and besting Kline really unearths the play’s natural humors as well as showcases his ability to understand comedy as truth.
In matters of grave importance—like whether or not to go out to the theatre— style, not sincerity is the vital thing. Fortunately METS’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest has both, and it is indeed worth going out to see! So do so, because you’ll laugh, you’ll learn, and you’ll have a good time.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions.
The Importance of Being Earnest plays through November 10, 2013 at The Maryland Ensemble Theatre—31 West Patrick Street, in Frederick, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 694-4744, or purchase them online.