You would think that more than a hundred years after Oscar Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, the play would have lost some of the clever charm that made it one of Wilde's most popular works. This assumption is proved wrong, however, in the hilarious, charismatically kitschy Arena Stage's production of Earnest, directed by Everett Quinton.
The Importance of Being Earnest, set in 1890s London, follows the romantic adventures of young aristocrats Jack Worthing (played by Michael Skinner) and Algernon Moncrieff (Ian Kahn). Best friends, Jack is in love with Algernon's cousin Gwendolen (Susan Lynskey), but opposed by her mother, Lady Bracknell (Claudia Robinson). To hide his true identity from Lady Bracknell—who would disapprove of his family "origins”—he starts to lead a double life, giving himself the name "Ernest.” When Algernon learns of Jack's double life, and that he is in charge of a young ward, Cecily (Tymberlee Chanel). Algernon travels to Jack's home in the country and meets the young woman, falling in love with her immediately and falsely telling her that his name is "Ernest” as well—just as Jack told Gwendolen. The complex happenings grow even more complicated when all the characters encounter each other at one time, revealing their romantic entanglements and unraveling the mystery behind the name "Ernest.”
Although the cast is fairly well-balanced, Ian Kahn steals the show with his portrayal of the roguish Algernon. His exuberance and fantastic chemistry with all other characters—especially his partner in romantic crime, Michael Skinner as Jack—make the outlandish situations believable, and the clever dialogue hysterical. Lines like "Girls never marry the men they flirt with—girls don't think it right” are delivered with a straight face, raised eyebrow and perfectly acted body language on the part of Kahn. The other performers also give accurate performances: Skinner is anxious but gutsy as Jack; Robinson is contemptuous and petty as Lady Bracknell; Chanel is ingenuous and endearing as Cecily; and Lynskey—although she begins her performance seeming more like a Southern belle than an English lady—quickly finds her bearings and instantly becomes romantic and dreamy as Gwendolen. One of the best scenes is surely when Chanel and Lynskey argue over their dual engagements to a man named Ernest: their immediate transition from ladylike conduct and polite manners to raised voices and malicious glares makes for a classic catfight.
The set and costume design for Earnest—run by Zack Brown, a theatrical designer with experience from Broadway, The Kennedy Center, and other works at Arena Stage—is a light-hearted, fantastical adaptation of the satirical manner of the play. Antique-looking wood furniture arranged to look like an upscale London living room fits well within the 1890s timing of the play, and the set design for Act II is pleasant as an outdoor garden, complete with ornate lawn furniture, 20-foot copper sunflowers, and rose gardens that magically grow—complete with sound effects—when Cecily waters them with her special water container. However, the costumes, though astoundingly ornate, are not as timely as the set design. Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen's shocking turquoise, chartreuse, lime, fuchsia, and neon orange gowns seem out of character for aristocratic, proper English women, who would probably be seen in more mundane, elegant clothing. Despite the scandalous colors, the detailed and stunning costumes for the women are surely a testament to Brown's experience and creativity.
The talented cast, superb set and costume design by Brown and masterful directing by Quinn combine to make The Importance of Being Earnest a well-rounded, enjoyable production at the Arena Stage. Wilde's plot-twist-laden work hasn't aged any in the past hundred years—in fact, it's just gotten more witty and alluring with time.
The classic Oscar Wilde play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is currently at the Arena Stage in the Fichandler through December 23, 2004. Tickets are $45 to $59 dollars, depending on seating.
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