By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It has been called the most perfectly constructed comedy in English theatre. And it’s certainly one of the funniest. Funny, then, how The Importance of Being Earnest is full of serious people.
That’s the hard, crucial comic truth understood that makes the evening at Teatro La Quindicina in the company of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 masterwork so entertaining.
We get to watch as elegant and humourless characters acknowledge the social realities and status quo of their glittering, self-contained high-Victorian world. The play is built on an architecture of dazzlingly paradoxical wit. The inadvertent satirists who inhabit it offer a serious running commentary on money, status, class, religion, education, morals, manners, smoking, cucumber sandwiches, marriage, romance — did I say money? And they’re in earnest. Which is exactly what makes them hilarious.
Jeff Haslam’s Teatro production gets the pay-off. If there’s one thing Teatro casts know, from experience with the articulate wit of Stewart Lemoine comedies, it’s the comic dividend paid by gravitas.
In one of the funniest scenes, two young men-about-town are in crisis mode. Being Ernest is of gravest importance to the objects of their romantic pursuit, whose cranks are turned by the name — and their multiplying deceptions on this count are in immediate danger of exploding. John Worthing (Mark Meer) chastises his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Ron Pederson) for his apparent heartlessness. “When I am really great trouble, as anyone who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink,” objects the latter reaching for another muffin. He is not kidding around.
Pederson’s breezy, chatter-y mastery of the play’s constant inversion of serious and trivial (“divorces are made in heaven”), is a fine contrast to the more languid, weightier suavity of Meer as Jack, who will later admit to personal distress that “all his life has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?” Both actors have finely tuned coming timing, and the rhythm of their exchanges is supple, intelligible, and funny.
In another highlight moment, two women, one worldly urbanite of maximum ruthlessness and one delicate country flower of steel-belted determination have at each other over tea in a garden. Louise Lambert as the flinty Gwendolyn and Shannon Blanchet as the alleged innocent Cecily rise to the occasion with implacable charm and tooth-gritting smiles. Both are excellent.
At the centre is the majestic and terrifying figure of Lady Bracknell, the hard-headed social realist who is the unyielding spokesperson for respectability. Leona Brausen wears a hat with its own hauteur, a veritable architecture unto itself: the ribbons themselves (provided, like a gown with impressively formidable mutton sleeves, by designer Robert Shannon) quiver with grim social certainties. “Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.”
Lady Bracknell’s catalogue of the male requirements for eligible suitors is one of the funniest assessments ever made of the male of the species. Her first question to Gwendolyn’s potential beau is whether he smokes. Upon hearing a reluctant affirmative, her response is: “I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind.” Lady Bracknell, one of the repertoire’s biggest laugh magnets, has views on every aspect of modern society, including education. “Ignorance,” she declares grandly, “is a delicate exotic fruit. Touch it and the bloom is gone.”
And while Brausen’s performance, at least on opening night, had the odd lapse of decorum — it’s a little hard to imagine Lady Bracknell either shrieking or trotting — the humourless un-ironic delivery, the grim downturned mouth, and the shrewd squint that is light years from being a wink, are on the money. And I do mean money.
Julien Arnold is a riot as the play’s beaming resident cleric and theological enthusiast Canon Chasuble, whose views expansively include pagan annotations. And his scenes with Miss Prism (Cathy Derkach), Cecily’s fierce governess, are highly amusing (though on opening night, rather startlingly loud). And as a double pair of butlers, the city one sublimely impassive and the country one put-upon (a condition no doubt exacerbated by hair that looks rather unnervingly like an upside-down milk pitcher), are carried off with aplomb by Mat Busby.
Chantel Fortin’s set, lighted by Stephanie Bahniuk, amusingly requires only small adjustments to take the characters from the countryside to central London — an insight in itself into the Wildean world.
In a production that understands the measure and weight of the title, the pleasures of a witty masterpiece are allowed to shine, at a company that is constant in its exploration of the comic terrain. Give yourself a treat.
The Importance of Being Earnest
Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina
Written by: Oscar Wilde
Directed by: Jeff Haslam
Starring: Leona Brausen, Ron Pederson, Mark Meer, Louise Lambert, Shannon Blanchet, Julien Arnold, Cathy Derkach, Mat Busby
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through July 28