Saturday, February 8, 2014

Importance of Being Earnest

If you've somehow to make it to an advanced age without managing to see Oscar Wilde's greatest and most renowned play, The Importance of Being Earnest, you need to see it at the Lansburgh in Washington, where the Shakespeare Theatre Company is staging this masterpiece.  The play is one of those almost unbreakable stalwarts of the theatre, filled as it is with Wilde's fantastic wit that may even serve to make you think twice about things you've always assumed.

The cast is perfect--Americans yes, but they have both the Brit accents and the articulation down just right, so the production proceeds in what seems like effortless style. The only recognizable name and only British cast member so far as I know is Sian Phillips.  She of course is Lady Bracknell, described quite accurately by one of the characters as a true Gorgon--though the same character immediately concedes that he's not really are just what a Gorgon is. (For those who never read their Bulfinch's Mythology or Edith Hamilton, the Gorgons were three sisters turned into monsters by one Greek god or another, with snakes as hair and faces that literally turned you to stone should you gaze upon them. The hero Perseus slew Medusa, the only vulnerable one of the terrible trio, by focusing on her only through a mirror aided by his shield so he never looked directly at her.)

Ms. Phillips has starred and played in many shows mostly in London and is best known here for playing Claudius's mother on the series, I, Claudius.  I remember her fondly for her cameo role at the very end of the last episode of the wonderful British TV series drawn from Le Carre's Smiley's People, when she turns up as Smiley's unfaithful but constant wife, Anne, as to whom Smiley is taunted throughout the series with the line, "Love to Anne, everyone's love to Anne." She has just the right tone of dowager's definiteness to utter some of Wilde's best lines, although those are spread round the cast.

I believe Wendy Hiller played the role in a movie made in the UK long ago, and that Dame Edith Evans was possibly the most outstanding player who took on the role. It's even been done on Broadway by the male classical comedy star Brian Bedford.  If you never saw Edith Evans in anything else, catch her sometime as Susannah York's (Sophie Western) guardian in the great Tom Jones.

The leading men are excellent, as are their two intended female partners, along with the requisite servant roles. There's music before the curtain rises on each act, which at least does no harm to this well-conceived production. One strength is the Lansburgh theater, which is small enough so you can easily hear each well-spoken and often brilliantly-written line. In the end, you leave the theater delighted and filled with the right spirit. You also now know what great theatrical comedy is. I do think this play stops short of ever becoming what some have called it, farce, and I am not knocking farce, mainly because there are no slamming doors and other effects that define farce.  This is comedy based solely on wit and it was Wilde's last but surely greatest play, written sadly, before he managed to ruin both his career and shorten his life after its success in 1895.

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