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Of all the works of Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest” remains the most commonly produced. This, in part, because the tale is so silly, and in part because it pillories pomposity and rigid morality with such complete delight. Making fun of vapidity, the class system, and the spoiled is always a hit.
Now in a very classy new rendition at A Noise Within, the show offers up some interesting choices, a beautiful setting, and all of that satisfyingly uncomplicated humor. It makes for a relaxing, entertaining evening.
The tale, for someone who somehow has not managed to bump into the thing before, is essentially this: Jack Worthing, a country squire with responsibilities for a young and impressionable ward, has created an alternate persona so he can be frivolous when in London: a fictional brother named Earnest, whose name he adopts upon arrival in the city. As such he becomes engaged to Gwendolyn, the daughter of a noblewoman, who states she cannot marry anyone whose name is not Earnest.
Jack’s closest city friend, Algernon, already adroit at telling tales to avoid social obligations, adopts the persona of Earnest in order to ingratiate himself with Jack’s ward in the country, Cecily. Indeed, he proposes to her. Then Cecily and Gwendolyn meet, and this becomes complicated, to say the least, as they discover they are both engaged to Earnest Worthing. Comedy ensues.
Adam Haas Hunter makes a most engaging Algernon, draping himself across furniture and radiating a rather dissipated innocence. By comparison, Christopher Salazar’s Jack, though engaging in the second act country setting, seems a bit underplayed as the supposedly dissolute Earnest (something not helped by the only uninspired costume in the show).
Jean Gilpin gives the pompous Lady Bracknell a wry sense of humor along with the usual officiousness, which makes her far more fun to watch. Carolyn Ratteray as Gwendolyn, and Marisa Duchowny as Cecily utter the vapid piffle of their parts with such earnest and convicted intent as to heighten the comic aspects of their moments on stage.
Jill Hill makes a fussy and more than usually bemused Miss Prism, Cecily’s tutor, and Alberto Isaac leers with such innocence at her, as the country parson, that there is great charm in the result. Also worthy of note is Apollo Dukakis, taking on the roles of both Algernon’s and Jack’s household servants with a worldy-wise air in once case and a bemused confusion in the other.
Director Michael Michetti has brought an unusual but logical spin by turning the dilettante Algernon into Wilde himself, complete with flowing locks and moderately outrageous clothes. Operating on a set, by Jeanine A. Ringer, with the feel of a hand-colored pencil drawing, and with costumes by Garry D. Lennon which echo the color scheme and add their own little bit of the florid (with the exception of the instance noted above), there is a unified feeling to this production which does nothing but enhance the comic flow.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is, frankly, difficult to kill, but is far more satisfying in the hands of experts. The production at A Noise Within fits that bill almost all the time, leaving one laughing and charmed by a silliness which has remained constant for over 100 years.
What: “The Importance of Being Earnest” When: In repertory through November 22 – 8 p.m. October 4 and November 8, 14 and 21, 7:30 p.m. October 23 and 13, and 2 p.m. October 5 and November 2, 8, and 22 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40, with student rush and group ticket prices available Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org
Just as with film, some older stage comedies easily stand the test of time. Nobody objects to a new, albeit period, production of “Harvey” or “Arsenic and Old Lace” because they are genuinely funny. The same is true for less-often revived works as well, as long as they are approached as if new – that is, approached with the same zest that performers would give a brand new joke. The rule of thumb is, always, that one cannot expect something with a long reputation of being entertaining to continue to be so without human energy and commitment.
This is hard on less experienced performers or companies, where some performers may let the script drive the show while others are more in charge. Take, as an example, the production of “Charley’s Aunt” at the Whittier Community Theatre. The silly, cross-dressing comedy has been beloved for over 120 years, having originally opened in London in 1892. As such, the wit has the same formality one hears in Oscar Wilde, and comes from the same ethos. Yet, the humor reaches the audience through emotional connection and vitality in the playing of it. At Whittier, this verve is unevenly present. A little charging up of a few characters is almost all that is needed for the piece to shine.
The story has a good foundation for humor. Jack Chesney and Charley Wykeham, two Oxford undergrads, have fallen in love. The objects of their affection, Kitty and Amy, are the niece and ward of a stuffy solicitor who would never see his way to letting the girls be alone with two college men. Fortunately, on the date they hope to meet for lunch, Charley’s benefactor and aunt – whom he has never met – is due to arrive. Then she doesn’t.
To keep the tryst from dissolving, the boys talk fellow student Lord Fancourt Babberley into dressing up as an old woman and playing the wealthy, widowed aunt. The plot thickens as the solicitor, as well as Jack’s father, both make plays for the elderly woman in order to solidify their fortunes. And then, of course, a very aunt-like woman arrives with her own ward in tow.
Let’s face it, a guy dressed up as a woman but wanting to be a guy is just funny. Kieran Flanagan, as the increasingly reluctant Lord Babberley is absolutely the best thing in the WCT production, in part because he has all the best bits. Andrew Cerecedes, as Charley, does frustration and panic very well, and Austin Sauer, as Jack, certainly looks the part of an Oxford man, though he sometimes needs to evince a bit more excitement.
Anthony Duke does well as Jack’s proud but somewhat impoverished father. Tim Heaton plays the solicitor as such a dunderhead it all ends up in a comic “sameness.” Jim Gittelson as Jack’s “scout” or in-house servant should be tying everything together with lively commentary about his betters, but instead sometimes slows the action down with his formality. Nancy Tyler as the mysterious arrival, brings the speed back up, and Jasmine West, Amanda Riisager and Louisa Brazeau play the sweet innocent young ladies to the hilt.
Which is all to say that, at its core, this is a fine production. It just needs a little juice. Tightening and energy will bring it back to the level people have been laughing at all these years. Director Roxanne Barker has a long history in community theater, and knows how to make that happen, but needs to make certain that it does.
One possible issue, at the start, has to do with the set, whose design is uncredited in the program. The standard housing of an Oxford man at that time would have been comparatively cramped, but in a noble attempt to create a set allowing a series of very quick changes, Jack’s is vast – and the humor to be gained with a small space full of panicky young men is lost. On the other hand, the set’s two other aspects work well with the script, so perhaps that is the gain to this particular loss. In a positive note, a strong nod goes to Lois Tedrow who once again supplies a host of reasonably period costuming.
In the end, “Charley’s Aunt” is long for a modern theater-going audience, but the WCT production is often quite engaging. A bit more zip and the evening will fly by. In general, it is good to see a play which has been so loved for so long up on its feet again. And that may be one of the purposes of a place like Whittier Community Theatre – itself the oldest continually operating community theatrical group west of the Mississippi River.
In that vein, one must also tender respect for WCT’s recent loss. Deac Hunter, who was busily playing supporting roles onstage as recently as this season, passed away in March at age 92. A longtime WCT member, he was the kind of person community theater is built on. If you go to the performance, look for a lovely remembrance in the program. Even as just an audience member, I will miss him.
What: “Charley’s Aunt” When: Remaining performances 8 p.m. June 13 and 14 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors, students, juniors, and those with military ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org