Oscar Wilde’s final show is subtitled “a trivial comedy for serious people,” and when it premiered in 1895, it was comparatively trivial. Two men, each pretending to be a man named Ernest, two women who feel destined to love a man named Ernest, and an imposing old aunt with strong beliefs about marriage are just a few of this play’s quirky characters. Critics called The Importance of Being Earnest a “verbal opera” when it premiered because the plot seemed too ridiculous to be performed without music. But a deeper look at the play suggests that it is much more than a farce – it’s a subtle commentary on social conventions and the alternative identities we construct to get by. Seamless sets and rich costumes stole the show in the University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies’ production of this Victorian classic.
John Worthing (Kristen El Yaouti) is leading a double life. In the country, he’s “Jack,” a responsible provider for his young ward, Cecily Cardew (Claire Wink). Jack travels to the city to care for his playboy younger brother Ernest. But in London, Jack himself assumes the identity of “Ernest,” a playboy who falls in love with Gwendolen Fairfax (Alicia Grace), whose stately Aunt Augusta Bracknell (Radcliffe Adler) disapproves of their relationship. Jack’s not the only one who’s pretending. Algernon Moncrief (Montana Monardes) often evades dreaded social functions by claiming to visit his sick friend, “Bunbury.” When Algernon starts pretending to be Ernest too, hilarity ensues.
Montana Monardes was an entertaining Algernon and elicited many laughs from the audience with his sly facial expressions and his insatiable appetite (a semi-autobiographical detail, as Wilde himself was known to take sandwiches quite seriously). Claire Wink shone as a sincere Cecily, and her energy with other characters was palpable. The show’s dialogue was quippy and entertaining, although some accents were a bit contrived.
The real stars of the show were the beautiful sets, designed by Matthew Buttrey, and luxurious costumes, designed by Jeanette Christensen. A curved backdrop flanked a large gold picture frame in the center of the stage, which served as a modern-day reminder of the confines of self-representation. (In the lobby, guests were invited to pose for a “Victorian selfie” with props and a similar frame.) A lush garden complete with flowers and a real swing served as a beautiful backdrop in Act 2. Christensen’s period costumes were well-fitting and elegant. The men sported vibrant brocade suits, and the women’s costumes were exquisitely detailed.
One might see Earnest differently knowing Wilde’s own tragic story of leading a “double life.” He had an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, son of John Douglas the Marquess of Queensbury, and Queensbury showed up on opening night armed with rotten fruit. Though word got out and Queensbury was barred from entering the theater, he left a note accusing Wilde of being a Sodomite. Wilde sued Queensbury for libel and was subsequently jailed and sentenced to two years hard labor. He never wrote another play.
Creating an entirely separate person might seem foolish today, but we see the same careful construction of an identity every day in the age of social media. With every post, every like, and every comment, we build a “brand” to fit the confines of society that can sometimes eclipse our true identity. Sometimes it takes an over-the-top Victorian comedy to tell us that our obsession with self-representation is trivial, and remind us that sometimes, it’s okay to drop the mask.
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Behind the scenes at The Clarice’s The Importance of Being Earnest: