By Paul Dervis
What makes Portland Stage’s production of Earnest such a delight is its physicality.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Directed by Christopher Grabowski. Staged by the Portland Stage, Portland, ME, through February 17.
The Importance of Being Earnest must be among the most produced plays in the English language written before the 20th century — not having been penned by the Bard himself, of course. Oh, the royalties Oscar Wilde has missed out on!
And has there been a drama major in America who hasn’t played one of the roles during their four year matriculation? Not to mention all the other students who had those vapid school productions foisted on them.
There a simple Google search would reveal how many dozens of productions are being offered across the country this particular winter…and the Portland Stage Company would be leading the pack.
February is a difficult time to draw an audience, particularly in the frigid regions of Northern New England, so one can’t knock this major Equity house for hedging its bets. But the evening I attended the theater was only two thirds full and it was a Friday night. So maybe this piece has finally run its course. Which is a bit of a shame, because the group has brought in a few quirky elements to keep this classic fresh.
That’s my way of saying ‘I liked it,’ which surprised me as much as anyone.
The script is dazzlingly campy on its own, but the actors added beautifully to the silliness. For anyone who doesn’t know the storyline (shame on you) Earnest, in a nutshell, follows two privileged layabouts who create false personas so they can, shall we say, have their cake and eat it too. Doing so helps them get out of boring social obligations and other such prosaic annoyances. But these fake identities generate enormous confusion when each decide to wed gentle ladies who only know them by their nom de plumes…or something like that. And, of course, as with any well-structured piece, there is the typical surprise at the finale.
But what makes Portland Stage’s production such a delight is its physicality. At times the action boarders on slapstick, the kind that owes much to old British music hall routines. The entire cast is quite capable of pulling this off, but special praise should go to Ross Cowan as Algernon, who is deft at stretching his torso every which way (reminiscent of a young Dick Van Dyke). And Max Samuels as Jack, though a bit stiff at first, (actor’s choice?), quickly joined the mayhem and proved adept at the hectic choreography as well.
And, as in so many productions of Earnest, the chestnut role belongs to the actress playing Edwardian that dragon of dragons, Lady Bracknell…and Elizabeth West did not disappoint. Her timing was excellent, her overbearing stuffiness a hoot, and her voice proffered a roller-coaster blend of shrill and refinement.
Director Christopher Grabowski has given the staging an entertainingly oxymoronic quality — smooth yet disjointed. He has been a professor of drama at Vassar for a quarter century and has maintained a long working relationship with the Portland Stage.
The subtitle of The Importance of Being Earnest is ‘a trivial comedy for serious people’…rarely has Wilde’s sly characterization been truer than in this effervescent production.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years.