Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
My first-ever visit to Alumnae Theatre last Sunday was momentous. The illustrious company’s 101st season begins with Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which I was anticipating with equal parts delight and unease. Wilde’s play, first staged at St James’s Theatre in 1895, is synonymous with effervescent repartee, stylish drawing rooms and layered verbal erudition. (Wilde’s ability to skewer social mores through an acerbic wit is matchless.) The play is regularly revived, and has inspired modern plays, most notably Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1974) and Mark Ravenhill’s Handbag (1998). Its genre-bending combination of burlesque, comedy of manners, melodrama and – most of all – farce makes it one of my favourite plays. So naturally, I am predisposed to like it. Yet in my experience, it requires some daring to take on Earnest . . . for it can be a huge hit… or fall far and flat.
Let’s get out of the way the fact that Alumnae Theatre’s production is excellent. Lucid direction from Barbara Larose elicits sharp, solid portrayals from her actors, who perform as a tight, polished ensemble. The show is elegant to look at, with arresting period costumes by Margaret Spence and Peter DeFreitas, and a simple, pretty set designed by Marysia Bucholc that is expediently used (and even cleverly changed in plain sight). Fotini Paraschos has attended to the theatrical props that are integral to the plot with a canny eye to detail: Algernon’s silver salver bearing cucumber sandwiches, Jack’s inscribed cigarette case (which spurs the action), Lady Bracknell’s pen and notebook (in which she lists contenders in the marriage market), a tea service (Cecily’s weapon in her frosty war of words with Gwendolen), and Miss Prism’s worn handbag. The atmosphere of the venue is relaxed and friendly. In short, this is a great environment for experiencing this great play.
Earnest is both of its time while being ahead of its time. The play’s exploration of themes such as social position, appearances versus reality, style over substance, the rules of marriage, and family lineage are utterly Victorian, yet surprisingly contemporary. John Worthing (Nicholas Koy Santillo) and Algernon “Algy” Moncrieff (Sean Jacklin) feel an obligation to keep up the burden of appearances which accompany their upper social class. To escape their limitations, they each adopt an alias. John has invented an reprobate brother in the city named Ernest, whom he invokes to leave his respectable life as guardian to his 18-year old ward Cecily Cardew (Laura Meadows). This leaves him free to lead a double life: he is John or “Jack” in the country and “Ernest” in the city. The trouble is, his betrothed Gwendolen Fairfax (Kathryn Geertsema), daughter of the imperious and terrifying Lady Augusta Bracknell (Tricia Brioux), insists on marrying only an “Ernest”. John is equally surprised to learn that Algy has devised a similar euphemism for deception: “Bunburying”. To escape the confines of upper-class respectability, he leaves London regularly under the pretext of visiting his invalid friend Bunbury in the country. On eavesdropping to hear Jack give the address of his country home to Gwendolen, Algy “Bunburies” off to present himself to Cecily as Jack’s “brother” Ernest.
At this point, the farce ramps up as these characters take turns plumbing the depths of their scrupulous self-interest. Jacklin’s Algernon gorges cucumber sandwiches and buttered muffins while chewing the scenery with an unflappable, roguish wide-eyed charm. Santillo’s John prowls the stage as his on-stage sparring partner and foil: even more wide-eyed and very flappable. Brioux’ Lady Bracknell commands attention with the cane-wielding certainty about every view she expresses . . . no matter how often (and how equally certainly) she must then contradict it for her advantage. And Geertsema’s Gwendolen and Meadows’ Cecily are well-matched as the vapid duelling love interests turned shallow allies pursuing not a good man but a good name . . . with those men on their side committing to only what it takes to keep that name. Finally, Cecily’s governess Miss Prism (Tina McCulloch) and the village vicar Rev. Chasuble (Rob Candy) suppress their self-interested yearnings beneath an overt commitment to political economy and enunciation and a mandated celibacy that is belied by rampant double entendres. The play’s punning title neatly captures its plot – and at the same time refutes the Victorian moral principle that sincerity, not virtue, is its own reward.
The only major change Larose has made is that both butlers, Lane and Merriman, who are regularly on stage, are played by women: Lisa Lenihan and Barbara Salsberg respectively. Placing women into the role of on-stage observer and sometimes commentator adds a small modernizing element to this late Victorian period piece, and invites us as observers to consider critically this play’s resonance in 2018. The play’s only substance is the words the characters speak, which are usually empty of objective truth. “Ernest” and “Bunbury” are proud alternative facts that can be asserted or christened away – or not – as the need dictates. Algernon’s greatest triumph is that he “has nothing but looks everything,” a philosophy that today manufactures YouTube stars and viral memes. Lady Bracknell was not born an aristocrat: “When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way.” Today’s populist politicians – who would never dream of allowing their fortunes to stand in the way of claiming to be “for the people”- can take a cue from this brazen, single-minded pluck. Finally, Lady Bracknell’s assertion that “Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone” no longer rings true, when viewed through the Instagram filter of contemporaneity. In 2018, genetic modification has made the exotic fruit of ignorance hardier and far more persistent.
The Importance of Being Earnest is subtitled “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”. Scholars have refuted its sarcasm for decades, suggesting that the biting social satire beneath the irreverent, epigrammatic turns makes it, in fact, a serious comedy for trivial people. Larose’s resolutely Victorian production – brought to life by this dynamic and winning cast – indirectly reminds us that in 2018, there are surface similarities but important differences. The serious pursuits of today’s trivial people are far removed from those of Wilde’s effervescent characters. Still, for 2 hours, we can delight in their frivolity, buoyed by the assurance of a happy ending.
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What: The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde; Directed by Barbara Larose; Assistant Director: Ellen Green; Producer: Ramona Baillie; Co-producers: Alison Smith, Isabel Meharry
Featuring: Tricia Brioux (Lady Bracknell), Rob Candy (Canon Chasuble), Kathryn Geertsema (Gwendolen Fairfax), Sean Jacklin (Algernon Moncrieff), Lisa Lenihan (Lane), Tina McCulloch (Miss Prism), Laura Meadows (Cecily Cardew), Barbara Salsberg (Merriman), Nicholas Koy Santillo (John Worthing)
Who: Audiences 12 years of age and older
Where: Alumnae Theatre Mainstage, 70 Berkeley Street, Toronto, ON
When: On stage until Oct 6, 2018; running time: 135 minutes (including one 15-minute intermission)
* Designer Panel Pre-Show (with snacks): Thurs, Sept 27, at 6:30 pm, with performance at 8 pm
* Sunday Matinee Post-Show Talkbacks: Sun, Sept 30, 2018, following the 2 pm performance
Info and Tickets: alumnaetheatre.com
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya/SesayArts Magazine