Trivial pursuit

Trinity Rep's winning Earnest
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  April 22, 2009

090424_Earnest_m
VIBRATING Hantman and Brazil. 

It's just an informal policy, so there's no one to sue for a violation, but it's difficult to put on an awful performance of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. The pithy banter is too on-the-money funny to rely on delivery; the zigzag story has turn-by-turn directions, so nobody gets lost; and the action is more cerebral than physical, so it could be performed by actors in wheelchairs.

That said, when a trustworthy troupe like Trinity Repertory Company applies its talents to this classic, as it's doing through May 10, our level of satisfaction ramps up accordingly. Under the direction of Beth F. Milles, the new head of the MFA directing program at the Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium, the play has acquired fun little fiddly bits of farcical decoration.

The plot line is convoluted but distilled, as simple as a syllogism. If all As are B and all Bs are C, then all Cs are A. Plug in lovers and fools, and you're onto a working description of Victorian society.

John Worthington (Mauro Hantman) goes by the name Jack in the country, where he lives, but by Ernest in the city. That's where he frequently likes to escape, on the pretext of getting his nonexistent wastrel brother Ernest out of trouble. His foppish friend, the aristocratic Algernon Moncrief (Karl Gregory), employs a similar subterfuge. He escapes to the country, usually to avoid undesirable social engagements, by pretending that his imaginary invalid friend Bunbury is having another medical crisis.

As things start out, Jack wants to marry Algernon's lovely cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Angela Brazil). When Algie learns that Jack has "an excessively pretty ward" in the country, Cecily Cardew (Rebecca Gibel), he goes down to meet her, pretending to be that bad boy brother Ernest. To balance the plot, he promptly falls in love with her.

As the wordplay of the title indicates, and as its subtitle reinforces — "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People" — this is a sardonic comical essay-in-action on the consequences of social pretense. Both young women insist that they would never consider marrying a man who was not named Ernest. Yet while they think they value earnest suitors, sincerity proves to be the least thing they appreciate.

We can take the abrupt about-face of arch cynic Algernon, instantly smitten by Cecily, in either of two ways: as unapologetically romantic, head KO'ed by heart; or as ironically, manifestly, cynical, with even Algie finding himself whipped, like every other weak-willed zombie stiff-legging it to the altar. You pays your ticket price and you takes your choice. Earnest may date back to 1895, but it was written to last for as long as people are unknowingly hypocritical.

The arch-hypocrite of the romp is Lady Bracknell, "Aunt Augusta" to Jack and mother to Gwendolen, played with delicious precision by Janice Duclos. (The character is so devoted to an orderly life that her solution to the prospect of having an odd number of guests around the dining table is to have Lord Bracknell eat in his room.)

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Related: Old horse, new saddle, Myth understanding, Odd couples, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Entertainment, Performing Arts, Janice Duclos,  More more >
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