Sunday, March 1, 2015

ASF: "The Importance of Being Earnest"

Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a leader of the Art Nouveau movement of the late Nineteenth Century, so it is appropriate that James Wolk has incorporated the iconic "Mackintosh Rose" into his steel scenic design framework for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's production of Oscar Wilde's 1895 comic masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, as flowers feature prominently in dressing the stage throughout the play's three acts.

Wolk's arching architectural outlines create a transparency and lightness that compliment the glorious silliness that Wilde promotes in his "trivial comedy for serious people" as he skewers the English upper classes with some of the wittiest language to grace the modern stage.

Director Geoffrey Sherman's charming production features a nine-member ensemble cast of ASF veterans who delight audiences with their individual character quirks and spot-on delivery of Wilde's epigrammatic bon-mots.

At the center of the plot are two friends -- John Worthing [Nathan Hosner], who is known as Ernest to his city friends, and Algernon Moncrieff [Bjorn Thorstad] -- who each have invented excuses to avoid what they perceive as social burdens; Jack escapes the boredom of the country by inventing a libertine brother Ernest who he must rescue from time to time in London, and Algy creates a sick country friend named Bunbury as an excuse for getting out of family obligations in the city. With evidence contained in "Ernest's" cigarette case, Algy gets him to admit his double-life and learns that Jack has a pretty young "ward" named Cecily Cardew [Jenny Strassburg] who lives at his country estate.

In Act I, Jack comes to town intending to propose to Algy's cousin Gwendolyn Fairfax [Alice Sherman], but is thwarted by her pretentious and formidable mother Lady Bracknell [Diana Van Fossen] when she finds out that "Ernest" is an orphan who was found in a handbag that had been left at Victoria Station.

Act II introduces Cecily and her prim and proper tutor Miss Prism [Greta Lambert] who is taken with Rev. Canon Chasuble [Paul Hebron], both of whom are fastidious and old-fashioned. -- Algy arrives, pretending to be Ernest, and falls instantly in love with Cecily and asks for her hand in marriage. -- Jack arrives home in mourning clothes [having decided to get rid of his "brother" Ernest], and Gwendolyn shows up to secure her engagement to Ernest despite her mother. -- As each of the women has a fascination with marrying a man by the name of Ernest, and each believes she is engaged to Ernest, there's a lot to be resolved.

That resolution concludes Act III with Lady Bracknell's pursuit of her daughter bringing her to Jack's country home, and finding Miss Prism, who had been in her family's employ years ago and who had absentmindedly placed her three-volume novel in the baby's carriage and the baby in a handbag which she left in Victoria Station.

All the actors are top-notch in their roles; even the servants have their moments. Rodney Clark as the aloof manservant Lane, and Brik Berkes as the doddering butler Merriman, provide comic counterpoints to the upper classes. And Ms. Lambert and Mr. Hebron are so sincere in their depictions of simpler times, that they too give a balance to the sophisticated witticisms of their social betters.

The play is about love, after all; as a comedy, all will turn out for the best, and ASF audiences have been charmed by Wilde's oh-so clever study of the ramifications of love.