May 1 through 4, local theatergoers will have the chance to enjoy the last of what has been a very successful and entertaining season of plays produced on the campus by K-State Theater. The current offering is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and it will be performed again in Nichols Hall, Chapman Theater, at 7:30 Thursday, Friday and Saturday and on Sunday at 2:30.
Wilde’s last play has delighted audiences since its first production. And though a few of its references — to hostesses arranging the seating at their dinner parties, for example — may be dated, the play still provides its cast and director (here, Charlotte MacFarland) with more sure laughs than we’ll get watching Comedy Central for a week.
Much of the humor depends on how the language is poised: “My dear Algie, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn’t a dentist. It produces a false impression.” “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” “London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years.”
Maybe it isn’t fair to call this sort of humor “jokes.” “Wit” is more like it. Kansas visitor Oscar Wilde was witty, and “Earnest” is his wittiest play.
The story is near farce—people aren’t actually going into and out of bedrooms, just barely escaping meeting, but coincidence and questions of identity figure from the beginning.
You see, Jack Worthing (Ben Deghand) wants to marry Gwendolen (Bella Alonso), but her mother, Lady Bracknell (Cat Huck) refuses to consider the match when she discovers that Jack was, as an infant, found in a handbag left at London’s Victoria railway station. His wealth is insufficient to overcome his lack of family background.
Jack has been using a fictitious pleasure-seeking brother, Earnest, as an excuse to come to London. Gwendolen knows Jack by the name Earnest, which he adopts for his urban forays. His friend and Gwendolen’s cousin Algernon (Mat Ellis) frequently uses a fictitious invalid friend, Bunbury, as an excuse to escape the city.
Algie discovers that Jack has a pretty young ward living at his country estate. Jack returns to his country home to announce the death of Earnest, as the dissipant seems to interest little Cecily (Hannah Miller) too much—she too especially favors the name Earnest. But Algie has already adopted the Earnest persona, has traveled into the country, and is wooing the girl.
Gwendolen follows Jack into the sticks, but she is followed by her mother. There they meet the rest of the cast, including Rev. Chasuble (Sean Matthews), who is preparing to re-christen both Jack and Algie as Earnest, and Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism (Kelsey Coffroth). But then it turns out that Lady Bracknell knows Miss Prism from long before.
So the story gives any theatrical company chances to be funny. Prof. MacFarland has chosen a treatment of the story that I’ve never before seen—she has the cast play the characters as if they are actually angry. This worked surprisingly well, and may have made some of the jokes a little more obvious to the young audience.
Then, too, the production adds business to the play. Some of that worked very well, as when Jack, dressed in goofy High Victorian Mourning clothes, circles the stage to accept commiserations from audience members. The business that engaged the audience—addressing asides to the crowd, for example—worked well. Sometimes the extra business was less effective, and there were some added details that bothered me—should the Anglican Chasuble cross himself?
Huck, Matthews, Coffroth, and Miller had solid regulation Earnest turns. The young men were energetic and physical, and that usually carried their performances. Alonso was sharp and catty in a way that seconded the play’s lines about women becoming more like their mothers. “It is their tragedy.”
I thought Kathy Voecks’s Whistler-inspired set to be one of her best, which is saying something. Dana Pinkston’s costumes were wonderful; they may have been a little loud on the men (sparkle trousers?) but the women’s outfits were dead on. John Uthoff’s lighting was professional and not at all fussy.
And so the show was a treat. Earnest is always a sort of theatrical dessert. In this case, it was a fine finish for a delightful year of campus theatricals.