From the moment Andy Murray emerges from the bath as Algernon Moncrieff in the current CalShakes production of The Importance of Being Earnest, gleeful in his near-nudity and a puff of steam, it's clear that this is going to be one of the livelier stabs at Wilde's most famous play. Loopy, physically adroit, and perfect in their timing, neither Murray nor the rest of the cast disappoints in the much-produced comedy that gives us Bunburying, Lady Bracknell, and warfare over tea-cake.
Algernon and his friend Ernest Worthing are Victorian men of leisure, more dedicated to style than substance. They are also keen Bunburyists -- Algernon's name for a person who has created an imaginary friend or relative whose travails obligate the Bunburyist to leave town unexpectedly, usually when some tiresome social obligation calls. In Ernest's case, he Bunburies to leave his country estate, where he has a responsibility to act staid and proper in the presence of his attractive young female ward, Cecily. Bunburying to London under the pretense of visiting his dissolute (and nonexistent) younger brother also gives Ernest the chance to woo the lovely Gwendolen Fairfax, when he can get her away from her mother the dragon, Lady Bracknell. Things get complicated when Algernon, claiming to be said brother, sneaks off to Ernest's country place to see Cecily for himself and promptly falls in love with her. Ernest, Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell, a governess, and a man of the cloth all hurry in hot pursuit, there is great confusion, and eventually the shocking (and funny) secret of Ernest's real origin is made known.
While some comedies are funny by virtue of dialogue or situation alone, Earnest is really a carefully crafted piece, and it's beautifully executed here. Note the way Wilde sets up Algernon's line, "Soon they shall be calling each other sister," for example, to which Ernest responds "Yes, but they call each other a great many other things first." It takes an act, but eventually this seeming throwaway pays off when Cecily and Gwendolen finally reach an agreement. The whole play is like that, to the point where as simple a line as "he brought his luggage" can leave the audience howling.
Wilde also was intent on creating physical patterns that would increase the hilarity, a tendency Moscone indulges to fine effect. He has great physical actors, especially in Murray, and he has blocked the action so that pairs often move either in perfect tandem or as mirrors to each other. The way members of a pair interact goes a long way in defining relationships -- Ernest and Gwendolen are very vertical together, whereas Algernon and Cecily undulate and Reverend Chasuble and Miss Prism sort of vibrate. Moving separately, the actors also have some defining bits of business, such as Ernest's fussily stacking pillows to sit on as Algernon sprawls sloppily nearby.
The actors look like they're having a good time with their roles. Murray, who often gets cast as some sort of tough guy, gets to loosen up and be silly. Cecily is rarely played as the robust young woman Susannah Schulmann presents here; with her long wild hair barely bound and her vigorous movements, this Cecily appears to be a tomboy forced against her will to behave like a lady. Julie Eccles is a charmingly carnal Gwendolen to Anthony Fusco's prissy, proper Ernest. She's also clearly a chip off the old block that is the ruthless Lady Bracknell, which is a good role for Domenique Lozano, with her perfect diction and rich voice. In the last act, Lozano somehow manages to wring several extra syllables from the word "baby" -- all of them nuanced. Shotgun stalwart Clive Worsley makes his very funny CalShakes debut as the butlers Lane and Merriman (named, apparently, after Wilde's publishers, with whom he was cross).
The set design on the first two acts is charming, if subtle. The Bruns Amphitheater's proscenium, usually an industrial-looking affair, has been faced to look like a gold-leafed picture frame. It's an effect that contrasts well with the first act's reds and blacks and the second act's pinks and greens. In the third act, things get a little weird with the disappearance of furniture and the appearance of a large cutout, not unlike the giant maiden towering over a kneeling knight that graced the back of last year's Arms and the Man. I didn't quite get the point last year, and I'm still not getting it this time; if we're being told that in the third act, things get totally zany and unrealistic, the dialogue alone would suffice. It's a strange choice that appears to have been set up to make one joke.
There are all sorts of little inside jokes in Earnest. Algernon bears a more than passing resemblance to Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, Wilde's lover and the instrument of his downfall. Lady Bracknell is named after Bosie's mother. Cecily was the baby daughter of Wilde's friends the Cardews. Reverend Chasuble is named after a priest's vestments, and so forth. Many of the surnames come from the seaside towns Wilde frequented when he was writing. And in Algernon's compulsive snacking we see the author himself, who according to Gary Schmidgall's The Stranger Wilde: Interpreting Oscar was quite hard to tear away from the muffins.
He may have been eccentric, but Wilde was by all accounts a brilliant scholar, taking top honors at Trinity College in his native Dublin and then at Oxford. There's a funny story about an oral exam where he was asked to translate the biblical story of the Passion from Greek on the fly; told to stop partway in, he insisted on finishing because he wanted to see how it ended. He had the gift of which so many of us can only dream: the ability to come back with a witty retort on the spot, versus hours or days later. He was both broadly and deeply read.
Wilde was also a leading proponent of the Aesthetic movement, a tendency that was roundly satirized in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience. Although he was a dandy with a thing for elaborate floral adornment, he won over miners and cowboys on a speaking tour of the United States with his ability to drink them under the table.
Yet while he was a leading light in social circles and the nucleus of a small crowd of ivory-headed-cane-toting, velvet-wearing wannabes, Wilde was also often financially in the soup. His wife Constance's fortune was modest, and they had three children (and Wilde's taste for the elaborate life) to support. Which might explain the casual way he described the first scenario for what would become Earnest. In a letter to his friend and producer George Alexander, he wrote, "The plot is slight, but, I think, adequate. ... If, when the play is finished, you think it too slight -- not serious enough -- of course you can have the 150 pounds back." Wilde called Earnest "a trivial comedy for serious people," perhaps not realizing that he was writing one of the English language's most perfect comedies. Earnest has everything -- misdirection, assumed identity, amusing physical bits and stage business, and wit to burn -- and the current CalShakes production shows it all off with style.
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