Witty and bright, even after over 100 years
The leads in The Importance of Being Earnest try to evade responsibility, through witty banter and Bunburying.
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As spectators walked into the Cellar Theater, a dark, intimate space in which the actors and audience are on the same level, a butler in a suit with a British accent greeted them. Audience members were quickly ushered into the world of Oscar Wilde’s three-hour “trivial comedy for serious people,” which Powder and Wig prepared in only three weeks.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, two high-society, argumentative British men in Victorian London invent and maintain fictitious personas in order to escape annoying obligations imposed on them by the social conventions of the time.
Algernon (Francesco Tisch ’12), a gentleman who loves cucumber sandwiches and hates having lunch with family members, claims to visit his imaginary, invalid friend, Bunbury, whenever he wishes to avoid unwelcome social obligations.
Algernon’s best friend, John Worthing (Peter Buttaro ’11), posits a fictional younger brother Ernest, and sometimes assumes the identity of this brother, thus living a double life. The play treats Victorian social conventions as petty, satirically regarding such institutions as marriage and family as trivial and even nonsensical.
The actors, with their exaggerated, grand accents and gestures, embodied the play’s vision well. Although some characters spoke in accent and others did not, those who did not still spoke with effective heightened diction and tone.
The costumes of bowties, suits, slicked or curled hair, and heavy lace dresses also further played up the satirical, exaggerated conception of Victorian propriety. The set, though simple, as necessitated by the space, was informative and functional with its few windows, chairs, and the recklessly extravagant couch Aldernon so adores.
In the play, John has come to town to propose to Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Margaret Sargent ’14), who believes his name is Ernest. She claims she could never love a man whose name was not Ernest, and seems to like him solely for this virtue. Miss Fairfax proves to be incredibly pompous, showing this excessive attitude with her tone and her remarkably straight face.
Her mother, Lady Bracknell (Abby Crocker ’12) whose sass oozes out of her stern facial expressions, quick and biting wit, and dominant body language, learns of the engagement and begins harshly interrogating John. She decides that he is unfit for her daughter, as he lost both his parents; she says that “to lose one is unfortunate, whereas to lose two is careless.”
These events are essentially echoed in the case of Algernon and Cecily Cardew (Elizabeth Davidson ’11), John’s young ward. Algernon travels to John’s country house, pretending to be his younger brother Ernest, and proposes to Cecily, who is constantly writing in her diary or completing lessons with the proper Miss Prism (Mary Randall ’12).
Cecily, too, seems to like him merely because his name is Earnest, and confesses that she would not love him if his name were something else, such as Algernon. Davidson showed the audience Cecily’s childish nature through her giddy preoccupation with fake love letters she wrote to herself, pretending they were from Ernest.
Gwendolen comes to the country house, and encounters Cecily, to whom she apparently takes an immediate liking. She soon changes her mind, when the two discover they are engaged to the same Ernest.
They use food as a means of petty warfare, as Cecily puts several lumps of sugar in Gwendolen’s tea after she specifically asked for no sugar, and gives her cake, an unfashionable selection, instead of bread and butter.
The men are caught in their web of lies when the women ask them about the engagements; each woman tells the other that her fiance’s name is not Earnest. Both men decide to have Dr. Chasuble (Daniel Echt ’11) christen them as “Ernest,” only to discover that they have been named Ernest all along! Also, they are brothers.
The actors translated the humor inherent in the play with their grossly exaggerated, mocking gestures and tones. A favorite moment was when Algernon got up to ring the bell summoning Lane (Ryan Winter ’12), the butler, to ask for butter, which was right next to the bell.
Mockery of societal norms and of the pursuit of love and marriage are implicit in the play, and Colby actors largely executed this theme through their humorous melodramatic actions and heightened, dynamic enthusiasm.
Probably because the play was three hours long, composed almost entirely of seated dialogue, and written over a century ago, the beginning felt more polished and engaging than the end, with actors and audience members seeming more energized and focused earlier in the play. That said, it was ultimately hilarious and smartly done.