Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Importance of Being Earnest—Artists Repertory Theatre—SW Portland

“What a Web We Weave”

This classic comedy of manners by Oscar Wilde is directed by Michael Mendelson.  It is playing at their space, SW Alder St. & 16th Ave., through June 11th.  For more information, go to their site at www.artistsrep.org  or call 503-241-1278.

In this time of great turmoil, one might ask themselves, is this piece of fluff even appropriate to be staged at this particular time.  My answer would be, it is imperative that we have just such a distraction, so that we can better deal with the strife and stress going on around us in this country and the world.  In the time of the Great Depression of the early thirties, the most popular films were the Busby Berkley musicals, full of fluff and frolic.  It was just what the world needed then, and what the country needs now.  A little perspective, please, so that we can get on with our lives!

Wilde, and Noel Coward, too, wrote about worlds in which the idle rich had nothing better to do than loll around and tend gardens, drink tea, go to parties and the theatre, write diaries, change clothes constantly and gossip.  And, of course, talking about the opposite sex was of paramount importance.  Love was simply a word without a foundation.  To these two writers credit, though, they were not without their serious side, Coward having written, “Brief Encounter,” and Wilde, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” both excellent stories but the Public wanted the fluff and nonsense back.

And so we have two very rich and eligible bachelors, good friends to the end, Algernon (Ayanna Berkshire), sometimes known as Bunberry, and Jack (Jamie M. Rea), sometimes known as Earnest, both gallivanting Town and Country, to keep from getting bored and, of course, the quest to find true love.  But Jack has his eye on Gwendolyn (Kailey Rhodes), a cousin of Algy’s.  And Algy has his eye on Cecily (Crystal Ann Muñoz), Jack’s ward.  But, in those days, no marriages would dare take place without the approval of the parent, and so we have Algy’s mother, Lady Bracknell (Linda Alper), applying the third degree to Jack, if he is to marry Algy’s cousin, Gwendolyn.

It seems the important aspects that a gentleman should have are that they smoke, are of an appropriate age, have titled parentage, are ignorant, have fashionable homes and properties, and, of course, have money.  You’ll notice nothing is mentioned of love or a job.  To add to these complications, we have the serving class, which like in Shakespeare’s plays, sometimes hold the key to various mysteries.  In this case there is Miss Prism (Vana O’Brien), Cecily’s tutor, who is sweet on Rev. Chasuble (JoAnn Johnson), the local clergyman.  And then there are the butlers for the two houses, Lane and Merriman (Sarah Lucht), who have their own perspective of this vain, vapid and vacant world of the idle rich.

And if you think that is complicated, believe me, “you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.”  Really can’t tell you any more, as all these, games, masks, deceptions and mysteries should be sorted out and discovered by the audience.  But, know that, in the end, there is an “earnest” effort to set things right!

This is an outstanding cast, as I am familiar with all of them, sans one, and they have all been an asset to past productions in which they have graced the stage, this one being no exception.  Lucht is a scream as the “servant of two masters.”  Berkshire and Rea are perfect as the young men, battling wits, to find love.  Rhodes and Muñoz are enchanting and lovely as the femme fatales of a bygone era.  Alper, as the epitome of Wilde’s voice of social satire, is terrific.  O’Brien is a treasure and, in my opinion, is always a highlight in every show she does, including this one.  And Johnson is wonderful as the slightly naughty representation of the religious aspect of Wilde’s wit.  The costumes are marvelous, in the hands of the designer, Bobby Brewer Wallin, colorful and fitting the period, as is the art deco, black and white, sparse set by Megan Wilkerson.

This show depends on its success from Wilde’s clever language and a very inventive director.  The sight gags and timing are crucial to the production’s success, and Mendelson, an actor’s director, is perfect for the job.  He has chosen a super cast and has pulled out all the stops to get the needed humor out of the situation.  It was a full house and the show got a well-deserved standing ovation, so Mendelson should be proud of what he has wrought!

I recommend this show.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.