Shakespeare at the Biltmore: The Importance of Being Earnest and A Midsummer Night's Dream

The intelligence (sometimes coupled with a cheerful sadism) of certain playwrights produces work that's a genuine challenge to pull off. Alan Ayckbourn can do the trick for a community theater; for professionals the likes of those with Southwest Shakespeare Company, it apparently takes Oscar Wilde to (metaphorically) slice their tendons and set them to stumbling.

I expected to hear witty, melodious, nuanced English bon mots (just a bit over a century old) from the experienced actors in The Importance of Being Earnest. With about 1.8 exceptions, the leads merely spoke quickly. My companion and I, along with several other audience members, were sad pandas who contemplated crashing the nearby wedding reception at the Biltmore during intermissions.

And this show has drink service.

Some of the cast has, of necessity, been replaced since Earnest was part of SSC's regular season this past spring (when I didn't see it) -- but some of the freshmen are better than the incumbents. One of the actors who appeared last weekend will not appear this weekend. And with that, I've exhausted mitigating factors.

Neil Haven and Portia Beacham, as Jack and Gwendolen, are quite good, but the play is hella long and they aren't alone onstage in every single bit of it. Robert Lewis Topping and James Landua excel in their manservant roles. (Topping's so sharp that, although I know him by sight, I didn't immediately realize that he was doubling as Lane in addition to Reverend Chasuble, in the guise of the latter of whom he's more recognizable).

If everyone else gets food poisoning and those four have to play all the parts, by all means, go. Otherwise, you might want to read the script and then wait for a version about which you hear some good word of mouth.

You're more likely to get lucky with the reprise of A Midsummer Night's Dream out on the Paradise Garden Lawn. The fresh air and increased intimacy should serve the production (which has a strong concept to begin with) well, and the substitute actors, while I haven't seen them in action here, have proved themselves in other local shows.

Shakespeare at the Biltmore continues through Sunday, June 11, at the Arizona Biltmore Resort, 2400 East Missouri Avenue. Click here for more info, tickets ($20 to $25), and dinner packages.

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