Posted | Comments Off
Review: ‘Earnest’ still important
REVIEW BY JOHN BERGER / firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s the stagehands — dressed as house servants in late 19th century England, and creatively choreographed by stage manager Anne Alves — that earn the first round of applause as they literally set the stage for Hawaii Pacific University’s latest production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The set — co-designed by George Spelvin and cast member Duncan Dalzell — is minimalist, but the imaginative use of curtains, sectional backdrops and furniture suffices to create two luxuriously appointed rooms and a country garden. The stagehands perform with the same efficiency when a set change is required in the middle of Act II.
‘The Importance of Being Earnest’
Presented by Hawaii Pacific University
» Where: Paul and Vi Loo Theatre, Hawaii Pacific University, 45-045 Kamehameha Hwy.
The prominent role of the stagehands instantly distinguishes the current production from HPU’s Y2K staging of English playwright Oscar Wilde’s best-known satirical comedy of manners. As in Y2K, director Joyce Maltby’s cast does good job overall, maintaining the traditional British-English accents expected of the members of the English upper class and those who serve them; a few uncertain moments on opening night didn’t mar the performance. However, Maltby’s decision to cast a man in one of the major female roles gives the current production a subtext Wilde could not have anticipated when he wrote it in 1894.
With or without that distraction, the premise of Wilde’s witty dissection of the foibles of the English upper class is relatively simple. John Worthington’s primary residence is a country estate but he uses the mishaps of a fictional younger brother named Earnest as a reason to spend time in London — where he goes by the name of Earnest instead of John or Jack. Algernon Moncrieff’s primary residence is a townhouse in London but he uses the ill-health of a fictional friend named Bunbury as a way to avoid family gatherings and obligations.
Worthington is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax — who lives in London and knows him as Earnest. She accepts his proposal of marriage for the silliest of reasons and says emphatically that she could not love him if his name was anything other than Earnest. Additional complications ensue when the story moves to Worthington’s estate.
Dalzell (Algernon Moncrieff) and Richard Brandon (John Worthington) give convincing portrayals of idle English gentlemen. Dalzell wears the character of a cynical self-absorbed lay-about like a second skin. Brandon plays Worthington as an honorable man who has become entangled in a needless deception (the nature of Worthington’s “wild” life in London doesn’t enter into the story).
Sara Cate Langham (Gwendolen) does a charming job as a proper well-bred English lady for whom thinking is an occasional thing and logic is unknown. Lacey Perrine Chu (Cecily Cardew) is superb in the role of an air-headed virgin who dreams revolve around her imaginary engagement to Worthington’s younger brother.
John Hunt (Lane) is excellent in the small but key role as a quick-witted butler.
Larry Bialock (Rev. Canon Chasuble) and Virginia Jones (Miss Prism) are a delightful comic couple in Act II. Bialock delivers sexually suggestive lines with a straight face but with a twinkle in his eye. Jones’s expressive responses define Miss Prism as a woman barely able to suppress the passion seething just below the surface. Jones’ physical responses to Bialock’s suggestive one-liners create some of the best moments in the show.
The “900 pound gorilla” in this energetic production is director Maltby’s decision to cast a man, Mitchell Milan, rather than, say, Jo Pruden, in the role of Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s battle-axe of a mother and then having him take the character as far over the top as an accomplished comic actor can go. We’re not just watching a talented male actor perform in full late-Victorian drag, we’re watching him milk the material for every bit of exaggerated visual comedy possible.
The casting choice is admittedly a calculated gamble (Maltby writes in her director’s notes that her first husband had wanted to play the role years ago, and that Milan, who starred in HPU’s 2005 production of “The Miser,” had notified her that he was available for it this time. By way of comparison, Maltby cast Martha Walstrum as Lady Bracknell at HPU in 2000). Fair enough, but Maltby and Milan could have him play Lady Bracknell with less mugging and clowning and not lose the comic elements inherent in female impersonation on stage.
In any event, some will embrace Maltby’s casting choice and enjoy the “boys will be girls” element. Others will feel that “Earnest” is funny enough when done by a good cast that it doesn’t require any add-on sight-gags or casting gimmicks. In either event, while HPU’s production is not the traditional straight take on Wilde’s timeless work it is an excellent introduction to it.
John Berger has been a mainstay in the local entertainment scene for nearly 40 years. Contact him via email at email@example.com.