by Hugh Hunter
Almost every year you can find a Philadelphia area revival of “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895) by Oscar Wilde. Now running at Stagecrafters, 8130 Germantown Ave., you never tire of watching Algernon and friends seek love and happiness over the opposition of Lady Bracknell.
Director Yaga Brady takes “Earnest” out of the Victorian era and sets it down in the 1920s. She uses loose fitting flapper era dresses and a sound design (Steve Brady) that intersperses early jazz between acts. It works well because after World War I, Wilde’s skeptical attitude towards conventional morality had become commonplace.
I suppose you could say “Earnest” is a farce, but that does not do the play justice. True, we do have plenty of comical plotting, coincidences and mistaken identities. But “Earnest” is also broadly satirical, and beneath the playful trappings of the farce form we see some pretty desperate young people.
They all seek escape from a constraining social world. In the lead role of Algernon, Brian Weiser does not overplay the character’s insouciance to the point that Algernon becomes supercilious. (I have seen that in a few other productions.)
Other characters are not as fully self-conscious, but they share Algernon’s discontent. His friend Jack (Jim Broyles) is desperate to control events so as to pursue his love interest, but he only makes a mess of things. It is left to their quirky and resourceful women, Gwendolyn (Carol Enoch) and Cecily (Julia Wise), to steer matters in a helpful direction.
Lady Bracknell (Ginny Kaufmann) is everyone’s antagonist and one of the most comical characters in all of theatrical history. Old school Bracknell states her views in a matter-of-fact way, hilariously obtuse to the reality that the young people all around her now live in a different world.
Wilde pokes fun at everything — conventional morality, romantic love, even theater itself — with such a light touch you scarcely notice. He is especially keen on lampooning upper class claims to moral sobriety. As Algernon gaily puts it: “Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”
In some of his earlier works Wilde could become a little pedantic with his wit, but in his last play he is spectacularly free. Wilde even pokes fun at himself as he does not present his stand-in Algernon as an exemplary man. It is just that Algernon cannot believe in anything, and his only way of getting by is to be insistently gay (in its former meaning).
Unlike Algernon, in the real Victorian world Oscar Wilde was hounded and persecuted for his homosexuality, dying prematurely in Paris in 1900. Tragic as this is, “Earnest” is so fabulous it is hard to imagine what Wilde could have done for an encore. And in some ways the show at Stagecrafters makes you think you are seeing it for the very first time.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” will run through April 13. Reservations available at 215-247-8881.
More details at www.thestagecrafters.org.
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