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‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ Review

| Monday, November 13, 2017

Susan Zhu

“The Importance of Being Earnest,” performed first in 1895 in London, is perhaps Oscar Wilde’s most widely recognizable play. With turns of remarkable wit and a text that allows for significant physical comedy, Wilde’s play is no easy feat to stage, let alone stage well. The Notre Dame Film, Television and Theater Department’s (FTT) production, which ran Wednesday through Sunday, was delightful and thoughtful with an overall audience reaction far from the original staging’s outraged reception.

The story in “The Importance of Being Earnest” relies on a series of fortunate coincidences and a pair of serious cases of mistaken — or feigned — identity to fuel its farcical nature and thinly veiled criticism of the then fading Victorian Era society. Wilde’s skill with language and willingness to stage the absurd generate a thrilling, if otherwise physically inactive, social world. From the moment Earnest Worthing admits to being, in fact, John to Algernon Moncrieff’s adoption of the same name in order to woo Mr. Worthing’s ward, Cecily, the knotted plot lends itself primarily to such a degree of dramatic irony as might make a serious audience ill. All is resolved in the end, however, as one of the fabricated identities turns out to be true and each of the principle lovers end up together.

Central to the movement of the play is a pervasive lack of meaning. Characters continually contradict themselves and others and pieces of quick wit, while funny, do the same. This verbal extravagance is often exaggerated by the costuming and set design of the show as well as the accents of the characters. The subsequent sense of waste, of the triviality of time and breath, is uncomfortable for the audience, a sensation that is simultaneously intriguing and frustrating: something Wilde is particularly skilled at creating.

Staged as part of the FTT 2017-2018 season, this production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” featured student actors, many of which, though not all, are FTT majors. Far from being trivial, this production was engaging and intelligently staged. It is difficult to name a single standout performance, although sophomore Teagan Earley’s Gwendolyn Fairfax was splendidly frivolous and, at times, sour. Aided by her extravagant costuming, Earley commanded Mr. Worthing’s, as well as the audience’s, attention. This is not to detract from any other actor. On the contrary, Earley’s performance energized, and was itself augmented by, each and every one of her fellow cast members.

Of particular strength were both the set design and the small bits of interpersonal physicality between characters. The set was at times gorgeous and additive and at other times simple and non-distracting. It beautifully augmented the scene and the audience’s understanding of the play’s events and characters, including the potentially unblocked physicality and interactions between characters. Of particular note were the inspired relationships between Mr. Worthing and Algernon as well as their counterparts Cecily and Gwendolyn. These pairs, invaluable to the movement of Act II, had clearly developed unique physical and emotional chemistry that only served to strengthen the performance overall. Though it, at times, lacked energy and a sense that the actors understood the verbal play and counterplay of the particularly quick-witted moments, this production of Wilde’s farcical satire was delectable and satisfying to audiences new to and familiar with the play.

 

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