Most of the memorable theatrical characters audiences remember made them laugh … at themselves, at the foibles of others, at the struggle to overcome difficulty. Milburn Stone Theatre at Cecil College has created memorable characters with their latest production, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. This is a classic comedy by Oscar Wilde. Wilde was well known in his time for stomping on the societal rules and mocking the English class system. While Wilde ultimately paid dearly for his behavior in his English milieu, the audiences at MST need not worry. Director, Marshall B Garrett, presented a production with a light touch allowing the trivialities of characters and their situations to shine through. Scenic Designer, Bob Denton, used formal thought for the set design and brought each set close to the audience with two 10-minute intermissions to make the changes transparent to the audience. Framing the scenes with footlights and bringing the set downstage allowed the actors both to be seen and heard without problem. This is vital in a production that is filled with thoughts that are sure to bring the audience to laughter. The production design colors and properties complemented each other and immediately brought us into the upscale late 1800’s homes of this comedy. While the costume sketches and fabric swatches by Josephine Siu in the MST lobby allowed the audience to build their expectations, the reality did not always meet them. While the vast majority of the costuming was effectively colored and patterned, one Act 1 ill-fitting suit and an Act 2 sleeveless dress were starkly out of period. Costuming is a complicated and vital piece of this production; and Siu should be commended on the remarkable job she did with the majority of what was required.
Garrett’s direction kept the actors moving as the exposition unfolds in Act 1. While this can be bothersome and criticized as “wandering” in some plays, in this production it gave the audience a sense of the trepidations of Jack Worthing (played with panache by Andrew John Mitchell) and the sense of societal “place” of Algernon Moncrieff (played with equal panache by Tyler Groton). Mitchell and Groton carried off the difficult and wordy banter easily throughout the entire play. Joining Mitchell and Groton as their much sought-after paramours were Tess Pohlhaus as Gwendolyn Fairfax and Madi Houff as Cecily Cardew. Pohlhaus and Houff maneuvered quite easily through the language requiring them to appear quite frivolous about most things and yet quite serious about their respective love interests. Their characters were lovely to look at and brought grace and believability to their roles particularly in the Act 2 garden scene when they meet each other for the first time and by scene end are scheming together like life-long friends.
The other character who cannot be ignored in any production of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is Lady Augusta Bracknell. Garrett’s decision to use Joshua D. Singer as Lady Bracknell was complex. Garrett broke the fourth wall between on- and off-stage allowing the cast to include the audience in their internal thoughts and externally displayed emotions…with Lady Bracknell at the lead of this behavior. Singer is a very physical actor and understands well how to meld his physical talents with each character he plays. In the case of Lady Bracknell, Singer seemed “contained” in his costume not in a Victorian-era lady sense but in the sense of being unable to bring all his gifts to the audience. His vocality and myriad emotional levels seemed sincere and while having a male play this role is not new to theatre audiences, Singer’s performance seemed forced and the foibles of Lady Bracknell seemed to be “pushed” to the audience instead of amusing and delighting them.
Garrett took this classically period piece of theatre and tried to bring it to the modern audience by including several very modern comedic situations. While the presentation of Algernon coming to visit for a week with multiple portmanteaux, suitcases and baskets is funny as Garrett used multiple butlers and valets walking through the scene to effect this joke, the space available on stage did not support the multiple times this joke was told. Perhaps focusing on the entrance of the bags and exit of the bags around the calling for the “dog cart” might have better maximized the joke impact and allowed the audience to stay focused on what was being said. The other modern touch was Garrett’s direction of Miss Prism, played by Katie Kolacki. As so much of this piece needs the sense of late 19th century to underscore what Wilde is trying to tell us about society, it was jarring to have Kolacki approaching Miss Prism as a sex-starved juvenile which Kolacki did very well. Kolacki is a talented actress who certainly could have portrayed Miss Prism as the desperately-in-love-but-without-a-chance woman of the times more truly with more believability.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is a tried-and-true comedy of immense stature in the theatrical community. It never seems to lose its appeal as people even today contain those trivial and inconsequential aspects that Wilde so brilliantly satirized. MST took this piece and made a delightful evening out of it. Everyone should go and be amused!
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
Written by Oscar Wilde
Directed by Marshall B Garrett
March 8 – 17, 2013
Milburn Stone Theatre at Cecil College
One Seahawk Drive
North East, MD 21901