Entertainment » Theatre

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Meg Currell
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday May 30, 2017
Ayanna Berkshire, Crystal Ann Muñoz
Ayanna Berkshire, Crystal Ann Muñoz  

It's not often that my immediate response from seeing a show is unabashed delight, but Artists Repertory Theatre's production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde earns this and more. From its brilliant casting to the delightfully sparse period sets to the pitch-perfect performances, this winning production is a joy in every way.

In this twist on the well-made play, an infant discovered in a bag at a train station grows up in aristocracy and falls in love with his friend's cousin. When he announces his intent to propose, her family begins their investigation to suss out whether he is a suitable candidate. The absurd discoveries made in the process of the investigation throw the characters into brief but amusing chaos, and at the end, everything works out better than perfectly and they all live happily ever after. Such is the well-made play.

What sets this production apart is its all-female cast, a decision made in part in response to the recent casting of men in the role of prim and stuffy Lady Bracknell, the aunt leading the investigation into the protagonist. From Stephen Fry to Geoffrey Rush, the use of unattractive males in drag to play an older woman has been a recent hilarity.

This artistic team went a completely different -- and wholly welcome -- direction; fill all the roles with superlatively talented women and play it "straight." Given the marvelous performances in this production of "The Importance of Being Earnest," this was an excellent choice.

The appearance of the magnetic Ayanna Berkshire initially drew my attention to this production, and she is fantastic as Algernon; she conveys this brash character with physicality and a subtle shift in energy. As Algernon's cousin, Jack, Jamie M. Rea, who is new to me, is spectacular; her every syllable precise, projection enormous, her bearing regal and stiff, befitting the character's social status.

Heretofore unknown to me, Kailey Rhodes plays Gwendolyn Fairfax to vaudevillian aplomb; she is a showstopper. She has the bubbly charm of Debbie Reynolds, delivering lines like "Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you" with ludicrous facial expressions that communicate volumes in the wink of an eye.

Playing two different butlers, Sarah Lucht is similarly arresting. Butlers are often given the best lines in the play, throwaways that the aristocracy they serve typically ignore. Lucht takes these one-liners to their comic heights, adding physical dimension to otherwise staid characters. To my unpracticed ear, her Scottish burr is perfection.

The aforementioned Lady Bracknell is played to the hilt by Linda Alper, who seems to have been born to the role. Austere, perspicacious, and covetous, Lady Bracknell is the nasty aunt in every wealthy family; Alper gives us a no-nonsense Lady Bracknell whose appearance is amusing simply because of her conventional attire, and for delivering lines like, "Nor do I approve of... sympathy with invalids... Illness of any kind if hardly a thing to be encouraged in others."

Crystal Ann Munoz plays Jack's ward, Cecily Cardew, to delightful effect; the scene in which she and Gwendolyn square off is sheer comic bliss.

Rounding out the octet are Miss Prism, played by Vana O'Brien, and Rev. Chausable, the broadly comic JoAnn Johnson, who clearly reveled in her role as the local clergy smitten with Cecily's tutor, Miss Prism. Johnson played Chausable as a bandy-legged fool joyously pursuing his lady.

While I could also see O'Brien as Lady Bracknell, she plays the coy spinster whose foolish actions as a young woman led to the baby being placed in a handbag in the first place. O'Brien and Johnson are wonderful in their respective roles.

Much of the success of this performance is due to director Michael Mendelson. From the brisk pace to the sparse but evocative staging to the clever blocking of scenes, his touch is elegant and subtle. He played the irony of the all-female cast in a highly patriarchal play with a gentle wink and little more, allowing the play to speak for itself. Scenic Director Megan Wilkerson also deserves a nod; this is an intelligent staging with tremendous impact.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" is a positively delightful show; using a satirical production of a satirical play about the ridiculous mores of "polite" society, it demonstrates how far we've come as a society, and given our predilection for vacuous wealthy people, how far we still have to go.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" runs through June 11 at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., Portland, Oregon 97205. For tickets and information, call 503-241-1278 or go to http://www.artistsrep.org/onstage/201617-season/the-importance-of-being-earnest/

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.


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