Cristina Panfilio and Matt Schwader in American Players Theaters The Importance of Being Earnest
Oscar Wilde's biggest hit, The Importance of Being Earnest, might seem sexist to modern viewers if the men weren't every bit as foolish as the women. As it is, Wilde skewers both sexes in his takedown of the social pretensions of the English upper classes. The play is the first to appear on the outdoor Up-the-Hill stage at American Players Theatre this summer (through Sept. 27).
Wilde's characters (some of them, anyway) are clever without being terribly smart, and they have too much time on their hands, time spent indulging in false identities, imaginary engagements and other silliness. Their idleness is the audience's gain, though, as Wilde's dialogue lobs one quote-worthy witticism after another.
At times, it's almost too much, like a too-rich dessert, but mostly Earnest shows us why it was enormously popular in the 1890s and is still funny today. Wilde's brand of satire is foundational to so much that came after him, and APT's production does it justice.
Director William Brown has moved the time period of the play ahead to 1913. (It was written and set in the mid-1890s.) The action centers on two young men both engaged in the sport of "Bunburying," adopting an alter ego or fictional friend for the purposes of one's social life.
Jack Worthing has invented a fictional brother for himself, Ernest, and Algernon Moncrieff has conjured up a disabled friend called Bunbury who is plagued by health problems. Algy doesn’t feel like eating dinner with his aunt yet again? Time to claim that Bunbury needs a visit.
If that all seems preposterous, it is, just as their love interests -- both determined to marry a man named Ernest -- are. But this is where APT's casting really shines. It may be cliché to say, but it’s true: This ensemble has no weak links. From the two younger couples striving to pair off, to an older one and also the imperious Lady Bracknell, Algernon’s aunt (APT favorite Sarah Day), the company excels at pairing actors with roles that let them shine.
Core company actor Marcus Truschinski has a puppyish exuberance as Algy Moncrieff. Thoroughly convinced of his own charm, Algy is a pampered playboy who refuses to take life seriously. Truschinski plays it to the hilt, at times addressing his lines to the audience. Saturday's crowd found his cheeky glee infectious.
As Algy's somewhat more serious pal Jack (a.k.a. Ernest), Matt Schwader (also from the core acting company) provides a bit of grounding. But he's no brain trust, either. When grilled by the mother of his love interest as to whether he knows everything or nothing, he's quick to reply "nothing," desperately hoping he's chosen the right answer.
Perhaps the most fun to watch, though, is Cristina Panfilio as Jack's paramour, the haughty Gwendolyn Fairfax. A relative newcomer to APT, Panfilio has perfected every nuance of her character, from her aristocratic accent to her mannerisms to moments of physical comedy. It's a terrific comic performance; Panfilio seems like the kind of actor who would make a great addition to APT's core company.
Along with spot-on casting, production design is typically a highlight of APT productions. I loved Mathew J. LeFebvre's costumes, which crystallized the essence of each character while also being gorgeous to look at. Gwendolyn's sharper, more angular silhouettes echo her sharper tongue as compared to the giddy young Cecily, decked out in a frilly, childish dress of pink and white stripes, a pink ribbon tying back her auburn curls. Algernon's velvet jackets and dandyish stripes reflect his boyish nature and life of leisure.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a great vehicle for the Spring Green theater company's lighter side: It may be a frothy concoction, but it's expertly prepared.