Some theater experiences leave you overwhelmed by somber themes and dense dialogue. However, Arizona Theatre Company's production of The Importance of Being Earnest can pretty much erase all that darkness in the course of two and a half hours with its extravagant costumes and sets, playful blend of modern and classical music, and a focus on keeping Oscar Wilde's spirit of comedy and frivolity. With each actor giving life to unique character types, this version stays true to classic Victorian satire's roots while lending itself to a modern interpretation that will have you laughing your way through nearly the entire performance.
Although Stephen Wrentmore is a seasoned director and an avid Wilde fan, this is his first time bringing one of Wilde's plays to stage. With the first half taking place in front of gigantic peacock feather fan, it becomes clear that the world Wrentmore is working in is over the top and indulgent. Actor Matt Leisy, who plays Algernon Moncrieff, establishes himself rather quickly in the play as a source of commentary and comedy. Despite being an outrageously goofy dandy, his character still seems somewhat realistic as the kind of guy you can imagine getting cocktails and gossiping with all day, knowing that he'd definitely tell everyone anything you told him.
As the play progresses, Wrentmore's attention to the sound of British aristocracy shines through with each trill of an "R," nasally sneer, and jovial vocal intonation. The difference between the sound of the older, more lustful and dramatic Gwendolen Fairfax (played by Anneliese Van Der Pol) contrasted with the sweet, childlike over-annunciation from Cecily Cardew (played by Heather Marie Cox) alone would speak to their characters as much as costuming or dialogue could. Without ever seeing any single character, it seems you could get a sense of their entire temperament from just hearing them speak.
Another area where this production absolutely blossoms is the set and costume design. Made entirely in Tucson by the Arizona Theatre Company for this production, the large, surreal, and beautiful sets transition from the peacock fan backdrop sitting room in the city to a rose covered country home and garden at the play's finish. Lady Bracknell's costuming, mostly in black, white, and red, clearly shows her role as a sinister, albeit ridiculous, force in the play's plot. Algernon is dressed more whimsically, Gwendolen more indulgently with rich fabrics and feathers, and Cecily more innocently in pink and flowers.
While Leisy, Van Der Pol, and Cox all establish themselves as endless sources of laughter, Loren Dunn (who plays John Worthing) and Mike Lawler (who plays both Lane the butler and Reverend Chasuble) both brought very unique comedic attributes to their performances. Throughout the first half, Dunn is more of a prop for silly things to happen around him, while in the second half he stands out with a Monty Python reminiscent performance. Lawler, who is a Tucson native, goofed his way expertly through two roles as both a doting butler to start and a crackpot religious leader to finish. Through small gestures and glances, he speaks volumes on class and religion in his roles.
What the Arizona Theatre Company's production of Importance of Being Earnest does most successfully is subtly updating the Victorian play while keeping every ounce of Oscar Wilde's language and message in tact. It's as if the classic Romeo and Juliet quip of "What's in a name?" was answered by the cast with a resounding "positively everything." Modern audiences can take away a commentary on triviality that begins to ring true when you hear Algernon and John complain about not wanting to listen, talk, or look at things when seeking out entertainment. You can almost feel yourself flash back to the last time you sat with your Netflix account open scrolling through a myriad film options, but proclaiming that there's nothing to watch. While this play looks and feels silly, be warned: you might find yourself laughing your way to a realization you weren't expecting.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs at Herberger Theatre until Sunday, October 27. Tickets, which range from $36 to $60, are available via the box office at 602-256-6899 or online, along with more information, at www.arizonatheatre.org.
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