Last Friday, the graduating class of the Theatre and Drama Studies program premiered Oscar Wilde’s most popular comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest. Patrick Young directed the production, marking his last show as a Theatre Erindale faculty member.
The play’s protagonist, John Worthing (Thinh Nguyen), wants nothing more than to pursue the young Gwendolyn Fairfax (Emily Thorne). Gwendolyn is the cousin of Algernon Moncrieff (John Wamsley), who is like a brother to John. John’s feelings of earnestness grow throughout each act, and he never hides his feelings for the lady he loves. But, of course, like any good romance story, there are obstacles in the way. The Importance of Being Earnest traditionally fell into the category of “Victorian Nonsense,” as it challenges the standard, and often linear, Victorian plotline.
The play features the idea of double lives. John is unaware of his real parents, as he was “found in a handbag in a cloakroom in a railway station” as a baby. He doesn’t even know his real name. So, he went by “John.” This is where Wilde introduces the dangers of leading a double life. It’s hinted to the audience that John has a dark secret, but the audience is left wondering what that secret is as the play progresses.
As I uncovered the plot of The Importance of Being Earnest, I could not help but notice that, although witty, Wilde’s play reflects the problems of the Victorian era: it refrains from covering up the realism of aristocracy, class differences, and familial ties. But these serious issues did not deflect from the hilarity of the play. The overdone “marriage plot” found in many Victorian novels takes a turn with Wilde’s eclectic group of characters.
John and Algernon “Algae” are in love with each other’s relatives: John is in love with Algae’s cousin, and Algae in love with John’s niece, Cecily Cardew (Katie McDonald). The plot gets messy, and quite confusing, when John lies about having a brother named Earnest, and pretends at times that he is Earnest. Algae also lies about having the name Earnest. The plot becomes more confusing when mentions of “Bunburying” emerge. Bunburying is the term Algae uses when he lies about having to tend to his friend Bunbury. He uses this lie when he wants to avoid an event or social gathering. Algae eventually gets caught in his lies. Although the idea of Bunburying was rather confusing, it sparked a lot of humour in the play, as Algae was always running off and telling lies, living a “double life.”
John also lives a double life when he lies about his identity. This difficult plot is revealed when he tries to reclaim his lost cigarette box from Algae. Yet, Algae claims the cigarette box does not belong to John because there’s a note inside from Cecily to Uncle Earnest. Although these ideas were hard to wrap my head around, the cast never broke character and were hilarious the whole way through. The play was extremely entertaining and obviously well-rehearsed.
Aside from John and Algae, the funniest character had to be Lady Bracknell (Shaquille Pottinger). This character was the typical over-the-top protective Victorian mother, spending her days doing nothing but finding her daughter a suitable husband. What was especially funny about Lady Bracknell was her hyperbolized expressions, lines, pauses, and costume. Pottinger wore large gowns and always had a cane. He slowly glided across the floor, as if he was in no rush to get anywhere. But the best part of the costume was the extravagant Victorian-style hat, topped with flowers, feathers, tulle, and bows. Pottinger always knew the right moments to pause for audience laughter.
Another funny character was Lane, the “manservant” (Caleb Harwood), who always had the sassiest comebacks and remarks. But like any good Victorian servant, he was patient and said “yes” to every ungrateful remark. Nonetheless, he had sassy one-liners and was always putting someone in their place.
The costumes, designed by Michelle Vanderheyden, were true to the play’s time period and suited each character’s personality quite well. Since Gwendolyn and Lady Bracknell were related, they both had similar costumes. However, Gwendolyn’s outfits were much more understated than Lady Bracknell’s outfits. Miss Prism (Sarah Hime), Cecily’s extremely old governess, showed her age with hair and makeup. She had lines contoured on her face and grey hairspray to make her look elderly. One of the best costumes was for Reverend Canon Chasuble (Spencer Bennet), who had his beard painted grey. At one point, he was clad in a full-on priest’s robe.
The set of The Importance of Being Earnest was beautiful. There were three acts, with each taking place in a different setting. In addition, every prop was well-considered and assembled immaculately. As Cecily and Gwendolyn were arguing, there was an actual loaf of banana bread in the tea set, real tea in the teapot, and real sugar cubes. In another scene, John and Algae argued about their name situation while chewing actual English muffins. They talked through the food in their mouths, never breaking character. This added to the genuine comedic element of the play.
Although the plot was hard to follow at times, the performance was highly entertaining. The most important takeaway from the ending was John’s self-discovery, when he finally uncovers his deepest, darkest secret.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs until March 26 at Erindale Studio Theatre.