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What’s in a name?
Apparently a great deal, especially if you’re a pair of genteel, well-heeled ladies like Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew. Both are passionate and glittering young things, and both have set their caps for their respective future husbands, who happen to be named Ernest. This is very important to both women, who simply can’t envision a life with anyone named anything else. The problem, unfortunately, is that neither Ernest actually exists.
Sounds like a knotty premise for a play, and Oscar Wilde’s witty high-society satire, The Importance of Being Earnest, is exactly that. Especially for the main participants, who are entangled in webs of their own making. A quick recap for those who missed the play in high school: insouciant slacker Algernon (Alexander Ariate) banters with his friend Jack Worthing (Jeff Lillico), who has come to London with the intention of proposing to Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Amelia Sargisson). A bit of sleuthing by Algernon reveals his friend has been lying, presenting as Jack in the city while living as Ernest in the country.
The reason? In order to escape the routine of raising his 18-year-old ward Cecily (Helen Belay) at his country home, Jack has invented a layabout brother named Ernest who he must constantly rescue in the city. This is appealing to Algernon, who reveals he also has an invented character named Bunbury he uses as an excuse to escape family obligations, such as dinner with his aunt, the formidable Lady Bracknell (Nadien Chu). He calls what Jack has been doing “bunburying” and evinces an untoward interest in young Cecily, much to Jack’s immediate displeasure.
A screwball comedy written the year before screwball comedy directing legend Howard Hawks was even born, The Importance of Being Earnest is also a torrent of quotable lines. Sometimes they’re deliriously bizarre, like Lady Bracknell’s declaration, “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.” Other times they’re wonderfully unselfconscious, as when Jack admits, “it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.”
Oh, the travails of the very wealthy. Both Ariate and Lillico spin off each other nicely as Algernon and Jack respectively, frenemies as much as friends, squabbling and jabbing as they pull each other into trouble. Sargisson and Belay are equally well-matched as by turns confidantes, allies, fierce rivals, each brandishing diary-like parodies of Jane Austen heroines. Love blooms everywhere. Citadel stalwart Julien Arnold makes an appearance as the bachelor Rev. Canon Chasuble, chased by Cecily’s tutor, Miss Prism, who is played by Davina Stewart. It all ties up in an absolutely ridiculous way.
These are all indelible characters but in many respects, the play belongs to Lady Bracknell, a fierce whirlwind of stern decorum, imperious glares and class haughtiness. Chu has to wrestle with the public’s memory of such acting legends as Judi Dench in the role, and by the time she has the four lovers cowering on the floor in front of her you know she’s claimed the character for her own. Tightly packaged in repressive Victorian wear courtesy of costume designer Michael Gianfrancesco, she cows everyone around her in an attempt to make sure they stay within the status quo.
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The Play’s The Thing sees 20 local theatre companies take on Hamlet
The Importance of Being Earnest
When Through Oct. 15
Where The Maclab Theatre at the Citadel, 9828 101A Ave.
Tickets Starting at $40.25 in advance from citadeltheatre.com