Sunday, November 19, 2017

Perfectly Wilde: At Writers Theatre, 'The Importance of Being Earnest' Is Frankly Rather Wonderful -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Reviews

The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde
directed by Michael Halberstam
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru December 23

Dating back decades, I've been a big fan of the legendary Irish writer, Oscar Wilde.

Even more than other great quotesmiths--Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Will Rogers, Yogi Berra, Muhammad Ali, etc.--Wilde is my favorite for wonderful witticisms. (He purportedly never actually said "I have nothing to declare except my genius," upon passing through U.S. Customs in 1882, but I love the line anyway.)

Among my multiple visits to London--where the scribe spent his prime writing years--a standout memory is an Oscar Wilde tour from London Walks on which the tour guide (Richard Walker) dresses as the debonair raconteur while leading a walk on the Wilde side.

But while I've known the conceit of The Picture of Dorian Gray since childhood--when I saw the 1945 film--I've never actually read Wilde's sole novel.

And though, going back a dozen years or so, I did see and enjoy three of Wilde's plays--Salome, Lady Windemere's Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest--I'd be lying to suggest the specifics had stuck in my memory.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
So the truth is that I've regarded Oscar Wilde as one of my favorite writers without really knowing--at least in a present tense--much of his writing.

And while I was excited to see Writers Theatre's new production of The Importance of Being Earnest, I was a bit worried I might find it too dense, dated, Victorian and hard to decipher & digest given all the British accents.

But as directed by Writers' longtime artistic director Michael Halberstam--with some atypical touches well-explained in the program--it was absolutely delightful from beginning to end.

Thereby serving to justify my perceived penchant for Wilde, whose gift for wit and wordplay is brilliantly on display in lines such as "The very essence of romance is uncertainty."

Although Earnest is a fantastically comedic affair, in which Wilde skewers Victorian society in ways that very much still resonate, I would be remiss not to note the tragic turn of events that accompanied the play's 1895 premiere at London's St. James's Theatre.

At a time when homosexuality was an imprisonable crime in England--where it would remain so until 1967--Wilde, who was married with two kids, maintained a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, cordially known as Bosie.

Bosie's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, had planned to throw a bouquet of rotten vegetables at Wilde when he took his bow at the end of the show.

The writer was able to have Queensberry barred from the premiere, but upon ongoing harassment--including being called a sodomite--Wilde filed libel charges, which backfired terribly.

Queensberry was found not guilty; Oscar and Bosie were immediately put on trial and declared guilty of gross indecency. Upon being sentenced, Douglas went into exile while Wilde served two years of hard labor.

Inarguably weakened, he would die just three years after his 1897 release, at the age of 46. (Several years ago, I saw David Hare's fine play The Judas Kiss regarding the events above, as well as a musical, A Man of No Importance, which incorporates Wilde's clandestine homosexuality.)

Though he would write the long poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, during his incarceration, The Importance of Being Earnest was Oscar Wilde's last major work.

And though one can certainly enjoy the play--especially an exquisite rendition such as now at Writers Theatre--without knowledge of real-life events, the sad reality was never far from my mind (not that it diminished the face value pleasure).

As the play opens, a man ostensibly named Ernest (Alex Goodrich, great here as he's been in musical roles at Marriott Theatre) visits his caddish pal, Algernon (an excellent Steve Haggard).

Both men soon reveal perpetuating  falsehoods, with Ernest really named Jack--and utilizing both alter egos--and Algernon pretending to have an invalid friend named Bunbury whom he can opportunistically claim to visit.

This gave rise to the term "bunburying" to denote maintaining the pretense of being somebody else--or visiting someone who doesn't exist--often to enable engaging in behavior that could damage one's reputation.

Especially with notes in Writers' thorough show program sharing that early drafts of The Importance of Being Earnest had Algernon named Lord Alfred, it's not hard to see how Wilde's fictional comedy contains slyly autobiographical elements.

At least overtly, in the play Ernest and Algernon aren't drawn to each other, but rather pursue--with some degree of duplicity--two beautiful young women, Gwendolyn (Jennifer Latimore) and Cecily (Rebecca Hurd), with both actresses being terrifically engaging.

Lady Bracknall (Shannon Cochran, first-rate in a role in which a man is often cast, per the program), who is Gwendolyn's mother and Algernon's aunt, represents a rather snobbish and totalitarian obstacle that must be overcome.

I won't reveal any more details about Wilde's convoluted narrative--which feels a bit like a high-brow episode of Three's Company (itself a 40-year-old reference)--as laughing out loud as the farcical escapades unfold is much of the fun.

But I admittedly found it beneficial to have perused the plot synopsis on Wikipedia before attending, as some of the chicanery may be a bit hard to follow.

Also contributing several LOL moments is local theater legend Ross Lehman in playing two separate servants, one rather soused.

Anita Chandwaney (as Miss Primm) and Aaron Todd Douglas (Reverend Canon Chasuble) round out the stellar cast.

Though there is a whole lot going on in The Importance of Being Earnest in terms of surface-level deceit and between-the-lines social commentary, watching it--in the Nichols Theatre within Writers' stunning complex--was never arduous.

I often have some trouble catching jokes, smoothly following accented speech or staying focused on period pieces, and that this rendition felt completely accessible bespeaks the wonders of Wilde's script, the talent of the performers--who at times seemed close to cracking each other up--and the skillfulness of Halberstam's direction.

Along with the "long-time pattern of casting men in the role of the formidable Lady Bracknell," Halberstam's program notes indicate that "Cecily and Gwendolyn and Jack and Algernon are frequently played as almost interchangeable in type."

But as cast and embodied here, that clearly is not the case.

My recollection of a 2005 viewing of Earnest is far too scant to gauge just how much difference these choices made, but my sense is that the aptly named Writers Theatre really gets it right.

Not only is one in for a delightful night of hilarious theater, but the genius--and importance--of Oscar Wilde is acutely rendered in ways readily understood and appreciated.

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