The Gate Theatre has a reputation for presenting exceptional productions of witty English period pieces at the Spoleto Festival, so the fact that The Importance of Being Earnest was yet another of these will come as no surprise to Spoleto regulars.
For newcomers to the Gate or to Spoleto, however, here’s what you can usually expect from a Gate production: a pure adherence to the original text, highly detailed, period-appropriate sets, great acting, and beautiful, intricate costumes. As we noted in a preview of this show, festival director Nigel Redden was correct when he said that the Gate’s Spoleto productions are a kind of reward for festival audiences who have stretched their artistic horizons with newer or stranger productions.
The Importance of Being Earnest certainly fits this characterization. The play itself is one of the best in English literature — it’s funny, ridiculous, satiric, almost farcical, and perfectly constructed. When the actors succeed, as they certainly did last night, the theater fills with belly laughs as the cast members spout off their Wildean witticisms, one after another after another.
In fact, last night’s audience was having such a good time watching the show that at the climax of the play, when — spoiler alert if you don’t know the story — a certain character’s real name is revealed, resolving nearly all the characters’ problems in a neat little bow, several theatergoers actually said it out loud with the cast: “Ernest!”
The standout cast was uniformly great, but special mention must go to one of the minor, usually overlooked characters: Merriman, Mr. Jack Worthing’s aged butler, played by Des Keogh. Even though Keogh hasn’t a single line other than a mumble or dissatisfied grunt, he managed to get the biggest laughs of the evening through his understated physical comedy. Oscar Wilde would have been proud, I think, to see one of the “lower classes” stealing the stage from his hilariously self-absorbed and self-important upper-class characters.
Another special mention must go to Alex Felton. He was a marvelous Algernon Moncrief, as charming a dandy and rake as they come. His two costumes — a blue evening suit and a cream morning suit — were of the kind you could imagine Wilde wearing. One expects that Felton, and the director Patrick Mason, were channeling Wilde somewhat more than is usual with this production, as a drawing of the playwright was superimposed on the scenery throughout all three acts.
Speaking of scenery, the play’s set consisted of three sides of pale blue paneling that were folded back to transform into the three settings: Algernon’s drawing room, the garden at Jack Worthing’s country house, and Jack’s library. That blue was echoed in Algernon’s dress as well as in various pieces of furniture throughout the play, making for a pleasingly understated, cheery stage.
Mason paid incredibly close attention to every detail of the play, and as a result each and every prop is completely spot on: there are real cucumber sandwiches for Algernon to devour, and when the characters have tea, actual tea (or a liquid of some kind) is poured out of a brilliantly shiny silver teapot.
The Importance of Being Earnest hits all the right notes — it’s perfectly cast, beautifully portrayed, and funny as hell.