Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of A Chorus Line
It helps that the director of the current production is David Ivers, who has shown his skill with classic comedic fare at the Guthrie in hilarious productions of The Coconuts in 2015 and Blithe Spirit in 2017. As in both of those plays, Earnest combines a masterfully acerbic dialogue that grins as it skewers, with physical comedy that balances the sophisticated wit of its characters with blissfully outrageous physical hijinks. Ivers directs his players to mine the prospects for humor, both verbal and physical, laying out a treasure trove of both as the play makes its merry way over three acts.
Two boon companions, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, are meeting at Algernon's well-appointed flat in London, where Jack plans to propose marriage to Algernon's niece, Gwendolyn. In order to pursue his courtship of Gwendolyn, Jack needed a ploy break away from his manor home in Hertfordshire, where he resides with his seventeen-year-old ward Cecily and her tutor Miss Prism. He invented a reprobate brother Ernest living in London, whose carousing and unhealthy habits require Jack to frequently travel to the city to exert damage control. Therefore, Jack from the countryside goes by the name Ernest in the city.
When Algernon discovers Jack's deceit, he admits to having one of his own. To escape unpleasant social engagements, particularly those foisted on him by his aunt, the imperious Lady Bracknell (who is Gwendolyn's mother), he has invented a friend who lives in the country, a Mr. Bunbury, whose frequent bouts of poor health require Algy's attention. Gwendolyn arrives with her mother, and Lady Bracknell takes full charge of matters. While she considers the suitability of Jack/Ernest's proposed marriage to her daughter, Algernon becomes intrigued by his friend's description of his ward as both beautiful and wealthy. Despite Jack's objections, Algy devises a way to appear at the manor in order to make Cecily's acquaintance. Toss in a tutor with a secret ambition to be a novelist and a Reverend with ambitions regarding the tutor, and we have a delightful stew of intentional deceptions, misunderstandings, poorly suppressed desires, and creaky societal strictures.
One choice this production makes is to move the year it takes place from 1895, to 1905. With the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, that difference of ten years marks a transition from the Victorian to the Edwardian Era. I am no expert on the eras of British culture and history, but I understand that the Edwardian era saw a loosening of the Victorian era's rigid societal strictures. This may be detected in the unexpectedly independent streaks exhibited by Gwendolyn and Cecily, scratching against the old protocols of marriages arranged for them in a businesslike manner. While their temperaments were written into the script by Wilde, the production perhaps expands upon them.
Every member of this cast is doing wonderful work. Corey Brill, as Jack, and Michael Doherty, as Algernon, are making their Minnesota stage debuts, but both come with long resumes, including New York stage work. Brill captures Jack's nervous energy, stressed by having to work through his deception of being Ernest in order to clear the way to marry Gwendolyn, and doubly stressed when Algernon turns the tables on his plan. Doherty shows Algernon to be a rampant clown, in perpetual motion, except when striking a pose to make a point, and going through life with a lighthearted air. Both are convincingly romantic, though each in their own way, and the two actors, Brill and Doherty, have wonderful stage chemistry, whether in trenchant argument or celebrating their bond.
Adelin Phelps brings effervescent energy and mischief to her depiction of Cecily, resisting her tutor's restraint and ready to leap at the chance to be romanced by a "bad man." Helen Cespedes (another Minnesota debut) imbues Gwendolyn with poise and grace, but also a strong determination to have her way, as when she deftly takes charge of providing a stammering Jack with an explanation of why he created the charade of being called Ernest so that she can forgive him. Both Phelps and Cespedes deliver the wit so vital to the play.
Sally Wingert is perfection as Lady Bracknell, wearing her imperious nature as if she would expect the earth to cease rotating were she to demand it. No one can deliver a barbed remark in such an off-the-cuff manner as Wingert. Michelle O'Neil as Miss Prism and Bob Davis as Reverend Chasuble marvelously convey the awkwardness the two feel around one another, more cartoon types than flesh and blood characters, but serving the play well with great humor. Davis also plays Algernon's manservant, Lane, while Daniel Petzold is Merriman, the butler at Jack's estate, both spot on.
This Earnest has been given a sumptuous physical production. Susan Tsu designed beautiful, detailed costumes that embrace the Edwardian styles while also being true to character. For example, while all the dresses are stunning, Cecily, who resides in the country, wears a loose-knit outer-dress that seems at home in a bucolic setting, while Gwendolyn's dresses seem the height of fashion a girl making her mark in society would choose, and Lady Bracknell's dresses create a sense of amassing power through sheer volume of fabric–and beautifully selected fabrics, I might add, with no detail spared. And let's not forget her commanding wide-brimmed hats (wide brimmed hats being an Edwardian style). Algernon, the more flamboyant of the play's two young suitors, has a wardrobe to match his playful, attention-seeking personality, and Doherty makes them work.
Miko Suzuki MacAdams has created gorgeous sets, including a flower and vine festooned garden setting for the second act and a vast library created for the third act drawing room set. Philip Rosenberg's lighting design and Scott W. Edwards' sound design, with jaunty piano music welcoming us to the playhouse, contribute to production that looks and sounds fantastic.
Wilde gave The Importance of Being Earnest a most apt subtitle "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People." The comedy is trivial in that the conflicts are confections based on nonsensical behavior and inane choices. By design, it is not dealing with weighty affairs, and its well-to-do characters are disconnected from any of the world's real troubles. And let's face it, there are holes in the plot that in lesser hands could doom the play to the dustbin of dramatic lore. But these are not lesser hands, they are Oscar Wilde's, and that makes all the difference.
As for play being for serious people, for one thing, it requires a serious mind to catch the constant onslaught saber-sharp wit and wordplay. Moreover, that and the manipulation of plot contrivances are a balm to soothe the weight of those who carry serious concerns on their brow. These days that includes most of us, so celebrate this trivial but hilarious comedy, dished out in a marvelous production, as a buoyant theatrical gift from the Guthrie to Twin Cities audiences.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs through October 15, 2023, at the Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Oscar Wilde; Director: David Ivers; Scenic Design: Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams; Costume Design: Susan Tsu; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: Scott W. Edwards; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Voice Coach: Keely Wolter; Intimacy: Alli St. John; Resident Casting: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Karl Alphonso; Assistant Stage Manager: Matthew Meeks.
Cast: Corey Brill (John "Jack" Worthington, J>P>), Helen Cespedes (Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax), Bob Davis (Lane/Reverend Canon Frederick Chasuble, D.D.), Michael Doherty (Algernon Moncrieff), Michelle O'Neil (Miss Letitia Prism), Daniel Petzold (Merriman), Adelin Phelps (Cecily Cardew), Sally Wingert (Lady Bracknell).