If you didnt go to the Cultural Arts Theatres production of The Importance of Being Earnest this past weekend because the thought of a play about Victorian England bores you to tears -- please think again.
More Seinfeld than Masterpiece Theatre, this production whips along with the comedic pace of a TV sitcom, buoyed by an energetic cast and the unmatched wit of Oscar Wilde, a playwright far ahead of his time.
With a whimsical plot centering around the practice of Bunberrying -- a euphemism for using a phony identity in order to sow ones wild oats away from the prying eyes of Victorian society -- Earnest could easily be viewed alongside any one of several now-legendary Seinfeld episodes featuring similar absurdist euphemisms (Are you the master of your domain, Soup Nazi?)
Though set in the late Victorian era, the plays comedy is thoroughly modern, dealing with the vagaries of marriage, relationships and general hypocrisy. No stiff upper lips with this lot -- Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, after all, and though his characters are all English, his cutting, vibrant humor is all Irish.
Director D.J. Queenan sets the play nearly in the round, the small black-box bounded on three sides by the audience. This coziness is the key to this productions success, and precisely why the cast is able to bring TVs sense of immediacy and intimacy to the stage. The in-the-round aspect allows the actors to stretch a bit physically; they routinely break the cardinal rule of stage acting -- never turn your back on the audience -- to realistic effect.
(In a cheeky move that Wilde himself would have appreciated, Queenan embellishes the playwrights work with his own addition of three hilariously pantomimed vignettes to open each act.)
Tod Barker plays the central role of the neer-do-well Algernon Moncrieff about ten percent too fey for my liking. But then again, Algernon is essentially Oscar Wilde himself -- though not homosexual, as was the playwright -- and with lines this juicy it must be irresistible to camp things up a bit. Barker does so with infectious relish.
Patrick J. Saxon is spot-on as Algernons foil, the obsequious and self-important Jack Worthing. Wisely, Saxon does not attempt to replicate a period accent perfectly, focusing instead on the clipped rhythms of English upper-class speech, which he totally nails.
In contrast, Eve Butler, as the wildly romantic but oddly calculating Cecily, is the only cast member to go with a full-on English accent (castmate Allan Lander is an Aussie, so technically his accent, though authentic, doesnt count). Luckily, shes a master of it, and it adds rather than subtracts from her layered portrayal. Overall, Butler continues her development as one of Savannahs most disciplined and professional young talents.
Grace Diaz Tootle lends plenty of gravitas as well as her copious comedic talents to the role of Lady Bracknell. Happily, she lets Wildes wonderful language lead her rather than succumbing to a lesser actors temptation to play the role strictly from laugh line to laugh line.
The supercilious Gwendolen is as close to a thankless character as Earnest has, but Jennipher Murphy tackles it gamely, adding a few deft touches of her own. Nick Holt gamely handles two roles comprising two different butlers (!).
Allan Landers love-struck Anglican rector is a sheer goofy delight. And as Miss Prism, the object of The Rev. Dr. Chasubles quirky advances, Pepi Streiff has a peculiar deadpan delivery that had me guffawing.
While it goes quickly, this is no short play. You will not leave the theatre until at least two and a half hours have passed. There are two intermissions, however, and I strongly suggest you bring some pocket cash to indulge in the tasty concessions, and keep hydrated with some bottled water.
Its a long play, but one well worth your investment of time and money.
Cultural Arts Theatre presents The Important of Being Earnest Sept. 16 and 17 at 8 p.m. and Sept. 18 at 3 p.m. at Black Box Theatre at SPACE, 9 W. Henry St. $10 adults, $7 students and seniors and $5 ages 10 and under. Call 651-6783 to reserve a seat.