Louis Butelli, Richard Willis, and Kenn Sabbertonin The Importance of Being Earnest
Louis Butelli, Richard Willis, and Kenn Sabberton
in The Importance of Being Earnest
The program for the Aquila Theatre Company's The Importance of Being Earnest includes the statement that Oscar Wilde's play "was first produced at the St. James Theatre in London on February 14, 1895. It was a modern dress production." This is to signal the company's intention to honor Wilde's tradition and theirs, which seems to be nothing more and nothing less than rockin' the classics.

There's method to their rascally madness: They're making the persuasive claim that the play's focal characters -- Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, who both pretend to be named Ernest for purposes Wilde builds into his hilarious plot -- are as timely now as they were then. That's why production designers Robert Richmond and Peter Meineck, who are also (respectively) the director and producer, outfit Jack and Algernon in clothes that could have been purchased at Turnbull & Asser or Hilditch & Key earlier this week. And it's why, on their second entrance, the Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax and her mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell, sport Burberry accessories that Richmond and Meineck may actually have found on that boulevard of cheeky knock-offs, 14th Street.

The director and producer want to say that much may have changed since Wilde introduced his perfect play -- much certainly changed almost immediately for the author -- but that many truths about humanity have remained. One of them is that men like Jack and Algernon still have the attributes of quintessential English twits when it comes to thinking they've pulled the wool over the eyes of the ladies in their lives. And who's going to dispute that contention?

The foolishness that is The Importance of Being Earnest concerns Jack Worthing (Richard Willis in this version) who passes himself off as Ernest when he's in town and courting the bubble-headed Gwendolen (Cameron Blair). He reverts to Uncle Jack when he goes back to the Hertfordshire home he was bequeathed by a benefactor; therem he whiles away time keeping an eye on his ward, the innocent but clever Cecily (Lindsay Rae Taylor). Problems ensue when Algernon (Guy Oliver-Watts), having learned of Cecily's existence, decides to trot off to the country to woo the lass in the guise of the supposed wastrel Ernest. Algernon already has established a precedent for his journey by frequently mentioning a fictitious friend named Bunbury, whom he supposedly is visiting when he has gallivanting in mind and doesn't want to account for it.

Algernon as Ernest turns Cecily's head quickly, but Jack returns earlier than expected, whereupon the appearance of two Ernests causes more complications. That's because Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell, who's trailing her daughter, have arrived and don't know what to make of the improbable events. Because Wilde has plotted his play so devilishly -- in part by including characters called Miss Prism (Renata Friedman) and the Rev. Canon Chasuble (Andrew Stewart), whose presence impinges on the outcome -- the couples end as happily as lovers in a Shakespeare comedy. And Jack, having discovered that he was baptized Ernest, gets to deliver the very Wildean comment: "It is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that, all his life, he has been speaking nothing but the truth."

Director Richmond gives Wilde a shake-awake by leaving the text almost entirely intact -- not all directors bent on iconoclasm do so -- and taking liberties instead with what happens before, after, and sometimes during the lines. There are trims, and the characters' incomes have been altered to make them more commensurate with 2003 finances -- Jack's income has been hiked from between seven and eight thousand pounds to between 700,000 and 800,000. The more radical changes involve lighting designer David Dunford's dimming the beams whenever Algernon says "Bunbury" and leaps into a spell underscored by strange music. Artists like Queen, Hot Chocolate, and 10cc are heard during these passages and others, and Jack and Algernon even lip-synch to the chart-topping "Don't Give Up on Me, Baby."

Richard Willis and Andrew Schwartzin The Importance of Being Earnest(Photo © Brown Cathell)
Richard Willis and Andrew Schwartz
in The Importance of Being Earnest
(Photo © Brown Cathell)
Intent on spoofing Englishness in whatever manner they conjure that's concomitant with Wilde's, Richmond and Meineck have devised a set based on a cricket playing field. What could be more indigenous? Wickets serve to suggest wainscoting in Algernon's drawing room, and a number of lucite chairs are situated about. When Cecily enters after wicker has replaced lucite, she's carrying a basket and throws the blossoms in it onto the manicured sward, instantly making it a colorful flower bed. The impressive part of all this is that, until almost the end -- when Richmond seems to run out of ideas with which to top himself -- everything the director tries is effective. Well, there is one early interpolation that doesn't connect: When Algernon's manservant Lane (Andrew Stewart, doubling) comes into Algernon's drawing room as the play begins, he finds a man sleeping on the divan. The implication is that Algernon has indulged in a same-sex one-night stand, a development that Lane apparently doesn't find unusual. The sequence seems, however, to have more to do with Wilde's predilections than with Algernon's and is therefore gratuitous.

The cast never flags, however, and Aquila followers will recognize this fact as pleasantly typical of the busy ensemble. It's rare that so many people instructed to go as far over the top as they can find so many amusing ways to comply. The light-footed Guy Oliver-Watts sees Algernon as comically plummy; he elicits chuckles when compulsively eating cucumber sandwiches intended for Lady Bracknell, and when he utters "Bunbury" and goes into trance after trance he's as flexible as an animated cartoon figure. Richard Willis is just as nimble. Although neither actor stresses the potential vulnerability of these two Victorian space cadets, they're likeable in their foolishness.

It's not a new thought to have Lady Bracknell played by a man, but Alex Webb has the skill to refresh the notion. Ever since Dame Edith Evans got guffaws with the words "A handbag?" -- a reference to the container in which Wilde imagined that the foundling Jack had been left -- the onus on subsequent interpreters has been to find a new kind of reading for the outburst. Webb's solution is that he can barely get the words out. (He has another hilarious moment during the extended curtain call; watch for it.) Cameron Blair, grandly swinging her long, russet hair throughout her first scene, makes Gwendolen a modern flirt; and Lindsay Rae Taylor, who's pretty as the face of a daisy, is innocent and yet plucky. Andrew Schwartz, menacing as Lane, mines all of the potential for sight gags in the pot-bellied Rev. Canon Chasuble. In an almost wordless appearance as Merriman, Jack's butler, Ryan Conarro demonstrates that there are no small roles. He commands attention with his every move.

And then there's Renata Friedman as the fidgety Miss Prism, who holds the answer to Ernest's identity without realizing that she does. Friedman is constructed like Olive Oyl and also behaves like Popeye's nervous, angular girlfriend. When at last she gets the unstoppable urge to move to her own choreography and winds up on Rev. Chasuble's shoulders, it's one of those moments that seem as if they're the theater's reason for being.

Oscar Wilde referred to The Importance of Being Earnest as "a trivial comedy for serious people." This was at a time when he didn't have much regard for self-proclaimed serious people and wanted to do what he could to knock them off their assumptions and pretensions. The Aquila Theatre Company has roundly seconded that motion.