Victorian Secrets

It’s all about style in Oscar Wilde’s comedy of roleplaying.

Above the box office, in letters mounted on the wall, Issaquah's Village Theatre has posted its mission statement. "To promote positive values through art" reads the final clause—a sentiment that would have piqued Oscar Wilde, who his entire career battled his era's high-minded notion that art was worthwhile only to the extent that it was morally improving. Though he probably would have chuckled at the irony that his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest, his most exquisite, studiedly polished rebuke of unreadable, unwatchable Victorian sententiousness, was being staged in that very theater. To send up his society and its hypocrisies, Wilde used a fairly standard mistaken-identity plot: Two young men of leisure, Jack and Algernon, both pretend to be someone else, an invented persona named Ernest, in whom the two young women of leisure they're wooing become more interested. (And Wilde's misplaced-baby denouement was threadbare already when W.S. Gilbert spoofed it in H.M.S. Pinafore decades earlier.) What I missed in Village Theatre's handsome production (idyllic sets by Bill Forrester, luscious costumes by Karen Ledger) was Wilde's insouciance, with many lines declaimed that might have been funnier and more satirically pointed almost as asides—frothy paradoxes delivered with hyper-refined decorum. The play's imperious voice of propriety is the grande dame Lady Bracknell, perpetually simmering with anger as played by Laura Kenny. I'm not sure Wilde intended for any of his characters to be quite so overtly unsympathetic—nearly villainous, in fact. That sort of moral-stance-taking in a stage piece, stacking the deck of audience affection for or against your characters, was just what he was rebelling against. (Judi Dench did much the same with the role in the 2002 movie; I wonder if a real-life Bracknell might have found their emotional agitation a bit vulgar.) For example, Wilde made his heroine, usually in Victorian literature the focal point of sentimentality, into Earnest's most subversive character: Lady Bracknell's daughter Gwendolen gets the most cuttingly unsentimental epigrams. Jennifer Lee Taylor skillfully (and with crack timing) etches her lines in acid and rosewater, suggesting she'll end up something of a Bracknell herself. ("All women become like their mothers," Wilde says. "That's their tragedy.") Angela DiMarco, as Gwendolen's sometime rival Cecily, is more a conventional ingenue, and thus no match during their give-and-takes. Jason Collins is deftly languid and epicene as Algernon (Wilde's alter ego among his characters, if anyone is). My own preference would be a slightly stuffier Jack than Paul Morgan Stetler's, not only as a contrast to Algernon but to squeeze more satirical juice from the role. This performance's pacing (under Brian Yorkey's direction) was on the slow side—"it must go like a pistol shot," Wilde is reputed to have said of his play. Specifically, it's a lack of variation in pacing, I think, that robs this Earnest of some effect—even in the scenes where Wilde practically writes acceleration into his script by having characters echo each other with point/counterpoint dialogue to build excitement as well as parody his society's formalized ritualism. Jack and Algy's scene at the end of act 2 provides one example, a fleet comic-opera coda: J: I wanted to be engaged to Gwendolen, that is all. I love her. A: Well, I simply wanted to be engaged to Cecily. I adore her. J: There is certainly no chance of your marrying Miss Cardew. A: I don't think there is much likelihood, Jack, of you and Miss Fairfax being united. It's like a mad checkers match, but is played at about the same tempo as the earlier, more lyrical, scene in which the sweetly calculating Cecily, revealing her character quip by quip, confounds every stereotype of apple-cheeked English girlhood but Algernon falls for her anyway. Not that it's an easy balance to find; Taproot Theatre's sprightlier Earnest last season got a tad hyperactive. In a play where style is everything—Wilde even has Gwendolen say as much—these nuances make a difference, and Village Theatre offers a pretty and fragrant but not fully bloomed presentation of Wilde's hothouse flower. gborchert@seattleweekly.com

 
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