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Best of Providence 2009

Trivial pursuit

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

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.)

Hantman plays Jack as relatively subdued, which lets Gregory — a Consortium student and the only non-Equity actor on the stage — set the comic pace. He does so with a delightfully personable Algernon. Also standing out is Brazil, who comically sexualizes Gwendolen with such touches as a lubricious slow grind when she says that the name Ernest "produces vibrations."

Director Milles ringmasters with a broad comic tone, such as when she has the Cupid-pierced parson and governess simultaneously leap away in joyous frolic. More significantly, Milles more than once has characters who have just expressed deep emotional bonds upon meeting sit silently together, having exhausted all socially prescribed conversation. Social conventions and social standing is all these people see, instead of one another.

An additional, brooding character is the autumnal set design by Michael McGarty. Dead leaves surround the low platform stage, which is bracketed by flower-free arbor vines and leafless trees, a gilded proscenium arch in the far background, like a memory. There are fancy period furnishings in the foreground along with William Lane's elegant costumes, for when we are again captivated, back in the thrall of the "trivial" entertainment.

The real background of this play is our recollections, however vague, of Wilde's demise. Earnest, his last and most popular work, was first staged only months before his reputation collapsed after he was exposed as a homosexual.

Wilde refers in the play to "going Bunburying" and being a "Bunburyist" almost as much as to Bunbury himself, which shows a wink-wink, nudge-nudge insouciance about sodomy, the double entendre that cannot speak its name. Yes, it was also hypocrisy, but with a gun to Wilde's too-clever head. What further marvelous plays we could have had if it had not gone off.

Related: Old horse, new saddle, Power play(1), Black power, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Angela Brazil, Beth F. Milles, Beth Milles,  More more >
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