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Oscar Wilde’s ‘Earnest’ at American Players: Much ado about manners, wit and attire

Submitted by on Aug 6, 2014 – 6:29 pm

John, aka Earnest (Matt Schwader), is smitten by Gwendolen (Cristina Panfilio). (Carissa Dixon)‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde, at American Players Theatre through Sept. 27. ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

SPRING GREEN, Wis. – Perhaps it’s because theater companies and audiences have always taken to heart Oscar Wilde’s subtitle for “The Importance of Being Earnest” that this silly, precious comedy of manners has remained a repertory fixture since its premiere in the Victorian world of 1895. Wilde slyly dubbed his play “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” and its triviality is indeed embraced seriously in this summer’s amusing romp at American Players Theatre.

John (Matt Schwader, left) and Algernon (Marcus Truschinski) clash as Cecily (Kelsey Brennan) looks on. (Carissa Dixon)While “The Importance of Being Earnest” once titillated the public as a sendup of Victorian society’s posturing morality and convenient ethics, we’re so far removed from that era that we can no longer associate the farce with its object. We perceive only the wacky fun and a brilliant writer rather self-consciously indulging his own wit. The APT staging works so well because its cardboard cutout characters are so finely drawn in appearance, mannerisms and flair. Preciosity is all.

The young English gentleman John Worthing leads a double life. At his country home, where he’s responsible for his pretty ward Cecily, now of marriageable age, he’s an upstanding fellow. But whenever he ventures to London, he becomes a rake and even takes on a second identity as Earnest. He is genuinely in love, however, with Londoner Gwendolen Fairfax, who lives under the protective eye of her imposing mother Lady Bracknell.

When Worthing’s duplicity and the existence of his charming ward are discovered by his good friend Algernon, events sail into a high orbit of farce. Algernon, curious about sweet Cecily and pretending to be Worthing’s imaginary Earnest, makes an unexpected visit to Worthing’s country estate – whereupon fictions collide and outlandish secrets are uncloaked. Although the complications are multifarious, the greatest hurdle for both men is the singular preference of both young women for the name Earnest. A fellow by any other name simply wouldn’t hold the same appeal. I hope I do not give away too much of a famous play in revealing that all ends well.

Sarah Day plays Gwendolen's imperious mother. (Carissa Dixon)As the witty, refined dandies Worthing and Algernon, Matt Schwader and Marcus Truschinski quickly set the tone of casual and – in the minds of these two swells — quite necessary deceitfulness required to give the play its essential airiness and irony. Schwader and Truschinski plunge with heady zeal into Wilde’s game of clever quips and droll ripostes.

The whole effect of an upper class closeted in its own supercilious vanity is heightened by costume designer Mathew J. LeFebvre’s striking period attire. And that goes double for the splendid frocks that arrive on the persons of the grand dame Lady Bracknell (the deliciously haughty Sarah Day) and daughter Gwendolen, played with coy, if decidedly aristocratic, girlishness by Cristina Panfilio, whose white-plumed  blue hat cries out for a portrait painting.

Removal of the tale to Worthing’s country home — an adroit transformation by set designer Kevin Depinet from urban elegance to bucolic simplicity — introduces his ward Cecily, whose isolation and eager approval of Algernon-as-Earnest put one in mind of Shakespeare’s naive Miranda in “The Tempest” and her exclamatory “O brave new world that has such people in’t.” Propriety and newfound passion vie riotously in Kelsey Brennan’s buoyant Cecily.

The Rev. Canon Chasuble (John Pribyl) isn't quite as stern as he appears. (Carissa Dixon)Yet one might say the real treasure of this remote household is the girl’s tutor, the bespectacled and repressed Miss Prism, whose academic mien belies a shocking history. Amid Wilde’s caricatures, Tracy Michelle Arnold’s buttoned-up Prism is a wonderfully real character – absurd though her secret may be. Vulnerably human as well is John Pribyl’s sober, circumspect Rev. Canon Chasuble, who has an eye for the bookish Prism.

Truth to tell, this tissue of a comedy is the summer’s other much ado about nothing at APT, alongside the Bard’s. Yet, thanks to director William Brown’s impeccable sense of style and the ensemble brio of a smart cast, it’s also great fun first to last, from chuckle to LOL.

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