When a play is dependent on its cleverness of language, does it help or hinder the audience’s understanding to clothe the production in the visual context of its day?
Boulevard Theatre’s Mark Bucher is betting that the crackling dialogue and ironic language inversions of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” will excel on its own merits. To that end, the tiny Bay View troupe has stripped down the two-and-one-half-hour comedy of ill manners to its essence, presenting characters in contemporary dress and dropped into a minimalist setting.
Bucher calls it “naked wit – full-frontal cleverness unadorned by sets and costumes.” It’s an economical approach for the company that, for the most part, works for the audience.
Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people,” as the author referred to it, premiered Feb. 14, 1895, at London’s St. James Theatre. The gay author was then at the height of his fame. The high farce focuses on two protagonists who take on false identities to escape their social obligations. They both assume the name “Earnest” at different times, which leads to mistaken identities, one of the elements of humor driving the narrative.
Wilde at the time was criticized for writing a play with no redeeming social message, a style popular in his day. However, the apparent lack of message is in itself commentary on Victorian mores. Wilde’s subtle skewering of society’s elite through absurd humor may have had audiences laughing at themselves, as well as taking an inventory of their own social behaviors.
Bucher’s version follows that same thread, presenting the characters of Jack Worthing (David Matthew Bohn) and Algernon (Kyle Queenan) as self-involved, socially irresponsible young knaves who create false friends and fake obligations to avoid their social duties. They alternately assume the name “Earnest” in part to woo socially demanding Gwendolyne (Tess Cinpinski), daughter of the formidable Lady Bracknell (Margaret Casey), and naïve, empty-headed Cecily (Meagan Kaminsky), Jack Worthing’s young ward.
The cast largely hits its marks, with Bohn and Queenan blathering through Wilde’s lengthy dialogue like sharp knives through a stale cucumber sandwich. In Bucher’s theatrical democracy, all dialogue is delivered equally, which unfortunately dulls some of the author’s sharper points amid the sheer volume of words.
There also are a variety of affected moments that, in this case, actually prove perhaps to be too few. The aforementioned lack of visual context requires greater care with dialogue, narrative and the few physical movements at the troupe’s disposal. More strategic articulation in dialogue delivery and a little more affect in the blocking and movement would have given the play’s silly story more wit and a sharper point, both of which Wilde would have appreciated.
But that’s not to say the Nov. 12 audience and actors didn’t have fun. The cast delivered with the right level of energy, including Clarence Aumend as the butler Lane, Mary Buchel as prim Miss Prism and a hilarious David Ferrie as the salacious Canon Chasuble. Boulevard’s up-close-and-personal setting brought actors and audience members together for maximum effect.
“Earnest,” which made Wilde even more popular than he already had been, also marked the end of his career. An ongoing feud with the Marquess of Queensbury (the father of Lord Alfred Douglas, with whom Wilde was alleged to be having an affair) came to a climax in court. Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor for “gross indecency.”
The experience, which yielded the treatise “De Profundis” and the poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” broke the Irish author physically and spiritually. In 1900, five years after the premier of his greatest work, Wilde died destitute in Paris.
Still, Wilde lives on through his often revived works, which include social satires like “Lady Wendemere’s Fan,” “A Woman of No Importance” and “An Ideal Husband.” If nothing else, count Boulevard Theatre’s production as another homage – and a good one, too – to one of literature’s great social satirists.
Unfortunately, there aren’t that many of them around anymore.