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A Wonderful, Wilde Mess by the Shakespeare Theatre

Gregory Wooddell as Jack and Anthony Roach as Algernon in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of "The Importance of Being Earnest," directed by Keith Baxter. Photo by Scott Suchman.

At the beginning of Oscar Wilde’s classic “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Algernon Moncrieff declares, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.  Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!” The whole play embodies this fact: intertwined with deception, intrigue, and revelation, Wilde’s characters build from deception to revelation. Now extended through March, Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company adaptation (Lansburgh Theatre) is delightful.

Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” set in Victorian England, centers on the stories of gentlemen Ernest Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff: two pleasant but lazy friends who enjoy London society. Ernest actually visits London under a false name—his real identity is that of Jack Worthing, country estate owner, guardian to an 18-year-old orphan, and dignified member of the local community. For years, he has pretended to have a scandalous younger brother named “Ernest,” thus creating an alibi for his own adventures and scrapes in London. Whenever Jack goes to visit his “wicked brother,” he becomes the young dandy himself. Meanwhile, Algernon (or “Algy”) is Wilde’s own brilliant and foppish self-projection. Algy also has faked an identity: he has invented a poor invalid friend named “Bunbury,” who enables him to escape tedious social engagements. Neither man sees anything wrong with his sham: Ernest’s fake brother enables him to escape his country responsibilities and enjoy the city’s dazzling social sphere. For Algy, the façade serves as an artistic and delightful trick he can play on his friends and family.

At the beginning of the play, “Ernest” arrives in the city intent on proposing to Algy’s lovely cousin, Gwendolen. But a subsequent proposal reveals an inherent and perplexing obstacle: while Gwendolen is eager and ready to marry Ernest, her eagerness in part (or whole) rests on his invented name: “We live in an age of ideals,” she tells him. “My ideal,” she continues, “has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.”

It’s an incredibly ironic moment in the play. Gwendolen does not care for real “earnestness” in a husband—what truly matters is the mere label, the name. This skewed idealism is the focus of many Wildean jabs throughout the production: almost every character has a set of ideals they hold high, yet their actions are often consciously antithetical to these ideals. Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell, emphasizes birth, breeding, and money over everything else—but in a moment of truth near the end of the play, she admits, “When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind.”

This concept of idealistic veneer was metaphorized wonderfully (and I think consciously, though it’s impossible to know for certain) in STC’s set: the curtain and Algy’s parlor (scene for the first act) were both completely gilded. There is a shimmering gold over everything, yet we know it’s only a cover up—much like the lives of our characters. The second and third acts take place in Ernest’s country garden, completely festooned and covered with roses. It produces a similar effect, a feeling of lovely camouflage.

STC’s cast is truly excellent. The leading lady is, of course, Siân Phillips, perhaps best known for her roles as mother/empress Livia in the classic BBC series “I, Claudius,” and the Reverend Mother in sci-fi film “Dune.” Phillips has a commanding presence on stage, and gave each line with the perfect combination of regality and humor. Even for Phillips, Wilde’s brilliant dialogue poses a challenge: in an interview with the Washington Post, she said, “God knows it’s hard enough to do. It’s a great play. It’s like sitting in the middle of the mechanism of a very expensive clock. The construction of the sentences is harder, I think, to learn than Shakespeare, or Shaw.”

Anthony Roach’s Algy and Gregory Woodell’s Jack are a wonderful pairing: they have the ease and camaraderie of brothers, each unique but well-fitted to each other. Patricia Connelly and Floyd King (Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble) have exquisite comic timing, and added a delicious humor to the play. Katie Fabel’s Cecily is the perfect combination of clever and naïve. Vanessa Morosco’s Gwendolen felt rather one-dimensional—but this plastery effect could very well have been on purpose, considering the self-declared “short-sightedness” of her character.

Interestingly, this production reminded me very strikingly of Shakespearean romance. In many Shakespeare productions (Much Ado About Nothing being the most striking example), the love story gets twisted and tangled.  Misunderstandings abound, and characters experience tragic dismay. Yet in the end, all is forgiven, and everyone lives “happily ever after.” In “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Wilde makes these tragic plot twists into various petty (and funny) feuds. While Shakespeare’s protagonists are usually noble and virtuous, Wilde’s characters are comic fops and elegant clowns. Shakespeare’s heroes are often kings and warriors; Wilde’s men lounge about parlors and gardens eating muffins and cucumber sandwiches. Unlike the shrinking violets often portrayed in Shakespeare’s day, Wilde’s heroines assert their wishes and demands in quite an authoritarian manner. The characters and story are all “messed up”—but it’s a lovely mess.

Wilde’s incisive, sparkling commentary on Victorian culture can certainly speak to Americans in 2014. Few of us experience the luxury or leisure of Wilde’s wealthy class. But we can certainly appreciate the search for identity, the self-deception, and the social masquerading all at work here. STC’s production is a must-see, and is sure to lighten the remaining winter months.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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