Wednesday, April 24, 2019

"The Importance of Being Ernest"

The Importance of Being Earnest
Oscar Wilde

The Aurora Cast
Two young socialites both are engaged to Ernest, only there is no Ernest – at least not until two young dandies can rush to church for a late-afternoon re-christening, each planning to become Ernest to cover up his habitual propensity for lying.  But before such radical altercation of identities can occur, a purse found long ago in a railway station locker; a long lost, three-volume novel; and a tearful confession by a now-regretful governess play parts in allowing truth to rear its rare-seen head.  As one of the young men openly admits, “It is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth; it is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind.”

But ignoring truths and creating convenient realities are as natural as breathing for the deliciously eccentric characters that Oscar Wilde populates his wildly popular The Importance of Being Earnest.  Since its London premiere in 1895, the final and most popular of his literary creations has been re-staged in many forms worldwide -- live theatre, cinema, and even opera.  Aurora Theatre Company now joins the one-hundred-twenty-plus-year parade of productions with a fantastically directed, superbly acted, and beautifully produced outing that teases and tickles at every turn.  Director Josh Costello orchestrates both staccato-speed delivery of Wilde’s galore of epigrams and exaggerations as well as sudden silences where the tremble of a lip, the rise of an eyebrow, or the immense rounding of the eyes evoke hilarious results.  Aurora’s Earnest is an evening of Oscar Wilde at his finest where nothing serious is meant to ward upon everything that is trivial.  Mockery of all without making malicious fun of any is easily accomplished through Wilde’s brilliantly farcical script and the joyful, funny, and yet serious attention it is afforded by both this director and his cast.

Patrick Kelly Jones & Mohammad Shehata
Algernon (Patrick Kelly Jones) and Jack (Mohammed Shehata) are two gentleman of some leisure, both best friends and both living double lives.  In the country, Jack is seriously engaged in overseeing the upbringing of his eighteen-year-old ward and heiress, Cecily (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera).  He has created for himself an errant, younger brother named Ernest whom he uses as an excuse regularly to go to the London in order to also see and court on the sly Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen (Anna Ishida), with whom he assumes the name of Ernest.  Back in the country, his made-up stories about his bad-boy brother Ernest have intrigued Cecily, who has in turn created in her diary an entire scenario of this Ernest having asked her for her hand in marriage.

London dweller Algernon finds his avenue of escape from his over-bearing Aunt Augusta (Gwendolen’s mother, known to others as Lady Bracknell) and her unwanted social obligations by pretending to have an elderly friend in the country, Bunbury, whom he must frequently visit.  This “bunburying” has now become his favorite occupation.  He also has surreptitiously discovered the location of Jack’s country estate and conceives a plan to show up uninvited as Jack’s fictitious brother, Ernest – even more a surprise to all when he arrives since Jack has decided that very day to arrive home in mourning clothes, announcing his brother has died of a chill in Paris (Jack having tired of the ruse of having such a brother).

Anna Ishida & Gianna DiGregorio Rivera
Cecily gets finally to meet in person the not dead, very much alive “Ernest” (aka Algernon), whom she has secretly engaged, unbeknowst to him.  At the same time, Gwendolen also shows up unannounced at the manor, having followed Algernon to the country in order to visit her “Ernest,” aka Jack.  The fact that both young women are dead-set in only loving someone named Ernest is just one of the many, ensuing hilarious complications that mount in this gentle but quite pointed parody of the upper classes. 

Each of the four would-be lovers is played through immaculate interpretation that is full of both slight subtleties and outright grandiosity.  Declarations of love and of new friendship come surprisingly quick and loud, sounding like the conclusions of business transactions.  But at other moments, feelings that cannot find the words to be expressed are riotously expressed in stone-silent stares, a quivering lip, or near-choking gulp.  The ensemble of four lovers/friends is all the more fabulous in this Aurora production through the inspired casting of a wide mix of ethnicities as these late-nineteenth English socialites, giving the century-plus-old setting and story a wonderfully contemporary feel.  (The one downside of the entire cast’s performance is their ability to reach and maintain a credible English accent.)

Mohammed Shehata & Sharon Lockwood
As Lady Bracknell, Sharon Lockwood commands the stage’s focus every time she enters with her proud nose elevated just a bit higher than everyone else’s.  Her cadence of aristocratic airs is a musical score of delightful ups and downs as she almost sings her meticulously formed words.  When she is angered, her wrath shatters the air with its pompous righteousness.  When she is appalled, words like “hand bag” or “cloakroom” become memory-lasting sound-bites that will ring in audience ears for days to come.

Taking on smaller parts that still leave big impressions are Trish Mulholland as Miss Prism, the affectively prim and proper governess of Cecily, who has her eyes and her blushing tee-hee’s focused on The Reverend Canon Chasuble.  Michael Torres is the amiable minister, quite eager-to-please rich parishioners – and quite pleasingly flustered by the attention of Miss Prism.  He is also the oft-frowning, philosophically speaking manservant of Algernon, Lane. 

Gianna DiGregorio Rivera & Patrick Kelly Jones
Nina Ball’s set design in the intimate Aurora doubles nicely as a London flat and a country manor, both indoors and outdoors.  A flooring resembling decorative stones, a back-drop design of delicately cast iron, and Tiffany-inspired wall-dividers of a rich rainbow of art-deco colors are all greatly enhanced by the come-to-life lighting of Wen-Ling Liao.  Chris Houston has composed happy-go-lucky, period-sounding music that adds sparkle to a sound design where also birds chirp their songs to complete an air of country gentility.  From brightly plaid, three-piece suits to women’s hats perched like colorful nests on bundles of curls to even a three-headed fox fur, Maggie Whitaker’s costumes are a sublime comedy in their own making.

It cannot go unsaid, however, that in the end this and any production of The Importance of Being Earnest stars first and foremost the script of its creator, Oscar Wilde.  His ability to turn everything from simple logic to everyday facts to common phrases upside-down – only to provide new meanings that ring with their own truth – is incomparable.  His tongue-in-cheek observations of that long-ago era time and again ring often ever so wickedly true in 2019.  Consider,
- “It is absurd to have a hard-and-fast rule what one should and what one shouldn’t read.  More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”
- “If one plays good music, people don’t listen; if one plays bad music, people don’t talk.”
- “Relations are simply a tedious pack of people who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live nor the smallest instinct about when to die.”
- “All women become like their mother’s.  That is their tragedy.  No man does.  That’s his.”

Aurora Theatre Company allows the wit and wisdom of Oscar Wilde to come pouring forth with a production that ripples with naughty energy, simmers in untruths that ring with their own truth, and explodes with a multitude of clever phrases that are guaranteed to bring round after round of chuckles and outright guffaws.

Rating: 4.5 E

The Importance of Being Earnest continues in extension through May 19, 2019 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-843-4822.

Photo by David Allen

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