In The Importance of Being Earnest, the meat of the action is words. Even the title is a pun. It may not be surprising then, that the hero of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production is voice and text coach Gary Logan. Not the sexiest job, granted, but Logan guided the spirited cast through Oscar Wilde’s twisting prose. Thanks to Logan and Director Keith Baxter, the brilliant cast of actors charmed downtown DC’s Lansburgh Theatre with punchy dialogue and non-stop humor.
A satire of Victorian England’s upperclass, Wilde’s most loved play has the subtitle: “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.” Ultimately, wrapped in Wilde’s silliness, the serious people seem totally trivial.
Early on, protagonist Jack Worthing (Gregory Wooddell) desperately tries to get his cigarette case back from his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Anthony Roach) in Moncrieff’s swanky London flat. The note on the case appears to be from a woman named Cecily (Katie Fabel) to a man named Jack. Worthing claims she is his aunt.
Algernon: But why does she call herself little Cecily if she is your aunt…?
Jack: My dear fellow, what on earth is there in that? Some aunts are tall, some aunts are not tall. That is a matter that surely an aunt may be allowed to decide for herself.
Through Wooddell and Roach’s perfect banter, we learn about Worthing’s double life. Though Moncrief knows him as Ernest, Worthing’s real first name is Jack.
“Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country,” he says. As Cecily’s guardian, Worthing explains he maintains a serious attitude in their country home, but travels to the city to have fun on the pretense that he looks after his (fictitious) brother Ernest, a rascal.
Trouble brews when Worthing’s beloved Gwendolen Fairfax (Vanessa Morosco) says she would only marry a man named Ernest. Her mother, Lady Bracknell (Siân Phillips) further complicates things when she forbids their engagement. Phillips and Morosco are comfortable with snobbery. Morosco elongates words, especially “Ernest,” and delivers brilliant lines like, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing,” with a smile.
We meet Fabel’s fanciful Cecily in Act II as she wanders around the backyard garden. This is an opportunity to take in Simon Higlett’s elaborate set—which deserved and got its own round of applause. With marble columns, vine-covered brick walls, pristine white windows and furniture, the two-tiered set would have been Wilde’s dream come true. Known for his passion for beauty, he would have loved Higlett’s divine vision. (Especially combined with Robert Perdziola’s ornate period costumes – buttoned vests and jaw-droppingly gorgeous pillow-sleeved dresses).
The second act is slower to start without Roach and Wooddell’s energetic exchanges, but once they return their wit draws attention back to the purposefully silly and outrageous plot. Determined to woo Cecily for her beauty and wealth, Moncrieff visits Worthing’s home, uninvited.
Worthing is not pleased and argues with Moncrieff during their afternoon tea. A quirky charm, Wooddell exaggerates his expressions. (No doubt he mastered the art of Wilde satirical melodrama with previous Shakespeare Theatre Company roles in Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband). His eyes bulge—though still less eye-popping than Higlett’s sets. His face stuffed with muffins, Wooddell stomps his feet in frustration. It’s absolutely absurd and completely hilarious. Baxter’s brilliant direction and quick pacing makes the show feel much less than its two and a half hours.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Importance of Being Earnest is Wildely delightful. It’s the ‘Must See’ production of the 2014 theater season!
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with two 15 minute intermissions.