The Importance of Being Earnest A Trivial Play for Serious People gets a trivially serious treatment
by Drew Rowsome
In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.
If he were alive today, Oscar Wilde would undoubtedly be a pundit, a reality TV denizen, or a stand-up comedian. His eyes were razor sharp and his tongue and pen even more so. He may have billed The Importance of Being Earnest as "A Trivial Play" but the satire underlying the flood of one-liners and comedy masquerading as aphorisms, remains an indictment of his time, misogyny, sexuality, gender roles, the class system, etc, etc. What Wilde would make of 2014 we will never know and The Importance of Being Earnest remains a period piece that, while still uproariously funny, needs its targets shifted or re-focussed to make, a century and two decades later, its venomous arrows strike.
I never travel anywhere without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
The Hart House production of The Importance of Being Earnest is a reverent recreation of Wilde's play but the reverence is what makes it appear trivial. Some of the satirical references refer to events and people that proved not to be timeless, many of the quips are for garnering laughs rather than being realistic expressions of character, and the double entendres and puns fly fast and furiously as if to make sure there is not a pause so that the audience can examine plausibility. The cast tries gamely to spin an extraordinary amount of verbiage into a frothy fun-filled delight but, with those accents to keep track of and so much banter to volley, The Importance of Being Earnest doesn't achieve lift-off until well into the third act when the plot has become farcical enough to provide momentum.
To be natural is such a difficult pose to keep up.
Victor Pokinko has a limber physicality that underlines each line and keeps him centre-stage even when silent. A whirlwind of expressions play across his face and his hands and delightfully limp wrists, are always in motion. He is also lucky in that his character, Algernon Moncrieff, has the luxury of addressing the audience directly, taking us into his confidence with a wink and a confiding leer. Pokinko risks overstepping into modern mugging but it is a risk worth taking to pick up the pace. There are many little physical touches - including a charming clowning interlude of a set change by the servants played by Daniel Staseff and Lee-Orr Orbach - that takes aim at the hypocrisy and rigidity of society, but a full comedic physical fuelling would have relieved the flatness of the staging and given the bon mots room to sparkle.
I don't really know what a Gorgon is like, but I am quite sure that Lady Bracknell is one. In any case, she is a monster, without being a myth, which is rather unfair.
Poor Nicole Wilson is assigned the plum role of Lady Bracknell and she gives it a solid attempt. Unfortunately she is too attractive, young and female to make it work. An aged Bracknell is funny because, like Betty White spouting twinkling obscenities, the incongruity of a crone with power makes that power both hilarious and terrifying. Lady Bracknell as played by a man - and the role is often done in drag - adds a further commentary on Wilde's sexual politics, homosexuality, and drag speak gives Bracknell's lines that extra bite that makes them work. Without the gay, Wilde just isn't wild.
If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated.
Michael Adam Hogan makes a good foil for Pokinko and his stolid heterosexual-styling gives the opposite sex romances a credence unusual for Wilde. Whitened hair and a reverend's garb cannot hide the appeal of Andrei Preda (The Woman in Black) and he injects a lot of humour and sexual allure into a small role. Eliza Martin is blissfully willfully empty-headed and her comic conspiring with a regal Hannah Drew is a sly sisterhood that undermines the misogyny being satirized. The historical environs of Hart House lends authenticity to a set that is simple but suitably luxurious - and this production is similar: solid and entertaining but a bit more depth, speed and style would make for a more lasting impression.
The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.
The Importance of Being Earnest continues until Sat, Oct 4 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Cir. harthousetheatre.ca