A societal farce written in 1895 might seem like a dusty, dull choice for a younger theater company's season. But it aligns perfectly for Wallbyrd Theatre Co., whose mission is "Based in classics. Infused with art."
The company's seasons often draw from Artistic Director Virginia Monte's love of classics and extensive design experience, spicing up Shakespearean and Jacobean dramas alike with altered time periods and concepts. With Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," which plays at the Lyric Theatre through April 30, Monte takes a more traditional approach.
"The Importance of Being Earnest" is a mishap-filled tale of two young British gentlemen with the primary occupation of staying entertained. When they take on the same alter ego -- Earnest -- to please two young ladies devoted to that particular moniker, they end up in a string of comical deceptions that build to a surprising climax.
When the play opened on Valentine's Day 1895 at St. James's Theatre in London, Wilde was involved in a tempestuous (and secret) relationship with the son of a marquis. The show's run coincided with the public exposure of Wilde's love life, resulting in his imprisonment for homosexuality and consequent exile to Paris. Ironically, "The Importance of Being Earnest" was Wilde's open letter to the absurdity of Victorian society. By satirizing the conventions of the aristocracy, he was able to both criticize and entertain his audience with what he dubbed a "trivial comedy for serious people." The play remains much loved and performed around the world, and has been made into several film versions (the most recent in 2002, starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth).
"The Importance of Being Earnest," as a farce, demands overplayed roles, and Wallbyrd's cast unfailingly delivers. The cast is small, and the dialogue is involved. Wit and comedic timing drive the success of such a production, and much relies on the leading actors playing John Worthing (Kiefer Schenk) and Algernon Moncrieff (Edward Coomber). Fortunately, this duo is up to the task, reciting an impressive amount of lines and executing well in character.
Schenk and Coomber are ideally cast; their lively tête-à-têtes (especially those involving muffins, cucumber sandwiches, and makeshift weaponry), are some of the funniest in the show. Coomber brings in just enough pouts and sarcasm to provide a fitting complement for Schenk's pleasingly stuffed shirt John.
In the role of Gwendolyn, Stephanie Bancroft is alternately coy and judgmental, while Charlotte Moon (the youngest cast member; an Our Lady of Mercy senior) interprets a syrupy sweet, somewhat clueless Cecily. Rounding out the cast is Greg Ludek as the not-so-chaste Rev. Canon Chasuble, an impressively imposing Barbara Lobb as Lady Bracknell, and Joanne Brokaw as a bumbling Miss Prism.
The play is co-directed by Monte and local actor and writer Abby DeVuyst (who co-wrote and acted in Blackfriars Theatre's "The Flight Before Christmas"). DeVuyst, who has performed with Bushwhacked and Unleashed! Improv, brings a flair for improv comedy to the direction, and together the directors present a nuanced, yet laugh-out-loud funny production.
The costumes and hairpieces are opulent, and the set design of the show is a surprise during each act -- like a Russian nesting doll that expands and reveals -- as it adapts to the different locations used in the play. Much of the success of these set "changes" is due to the musical, choreographed scenes featuring Lane the manservant (Philip Goldfarb Styrt) and Merriman the butler (Tyler Lucero).
The show was performed in Lyric's smaller cabaret theater, which creates a three-sided stage, and at times, it was impossible to see some of the casts' faces. However, another character would usually be facing the other way, and the cast moved frequently so it didn't feel like much was missed. At nearly three hours with two intermissions, "The Importance of Being Earnest" is a definite time commitment, but it makes for an enjoyable evening.