When Oscar Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest back in 1895, he subtitled it “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.” That’s an apt description for a show still produced with frequency 117 years later — and as funny as ever. It’s about two guys who create imaginary friends (one named Ernest, the other named Bunbury) who provide excuses to escape from social obligations. Of course, their cleverness eventually goes off the tracks in the pursuit of love (including a young woman enamored of the name “Ernest”) and they’re caught. The play on words between the name “Ernest” and “earnest,” the quality of being honest and upright, is exemplary of Wilde’s witty writing. The show has become a classic, making it a perfect choice for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company to offer to audiences during the holiday season at its downtown Race Street theater.
According to Artistic Director Brian Phillips, it’s not the first time CSC has staged Earnest. There was a co-production with Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati at the Taft Theatre back in 2001, and CSC’s own staging in 2005. The current production opens Friday, directed by Phillips for the first time. Actor Jeremy Dubin has played both of the young dissemblers, John Worthing in 2001 and Algernon Moncrief in 2005; he’s returning to the role of Worthing this time.
A recent amusing concept for the show has been to have an actor in drag play the deliciously domineering role of Lady Bracknell, the overbearing aunt of Gwendolyn Fairfax, Algernon’s cousin who is pursued by the enamored John. Bracknell is the stern epitome of Victorian morals and judgmental behavior, topics Wilde loved to satirize.
I asked Phillips the inspiration for this visual joke, and he wasn’t certain of its origin.
A bit of online research indicates that it was first done in the mid-1970s at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival with William Hutt playing the old battle-axe. More recently, for the same esteemed company, the wonderful actor Brian Bedford did the same, a production that transferred to New York City for a run on Broadway that landed Bedford a Tony Award nomination. (The role’s most memorable female interpreter was the British actress Dame Edith Evans, who played Lady Bracknell onstage in the late 1930s and in a wonderful cinematic version in 1952. The disdain she slathered on the role has influenced actors ever since.)
CSC continues the Lady Bracknell cross-dressing tradition with six-year company member Jim Hopkins taking on the role. Phillips says he and Hopkins have worked hard to keep the character from simply being a collection of quirky observations and funny quips, “things you’d see on a T-shirt,” as Phillips characterizes them. (“To lose one parent,” she opines to Jack, who has mentioned being an orphan, “may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”)
Phillips, a veteran classical actor who interned at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati and then spent four years as an actor in Cincinnati Shakespeare’s company, has been the theater’s artistic director for a decade. He directs actors to hew close to the text of any show he stages. “I tell them to follow the punctuation, to pause at every comma and do a full stop when it’s called for. That’s the way to find the humor in a show like Earnest. It’s not just the situations that are funny — it’s the language that Wilde uses to set them up.”
Phillips played a drag role in the 2001 production of Earnest. As a member of CSC’s acting company, he portrayed Miss Prism, a befuddled nursemaid in Lady Bracknell’s employ. He confesses that he didn’t really know what he was doing in that role (cross-dressing is not a tradition with Miss Prism), but he had fun with it. Now that he’s a director, he has his own clear ideas of how Wilde’s comedy works best.
“I’ve asked Jim to play Lady Bracknell straight,” Phillips says. “The humor is there in what Wilde wrote. There’s no need to ham it up. In fact, it’s funniest when the actor maintains a kind of stillness and lets the words and situations create the humor.” Phillips appreciates working with Hopkins. “He’s masterful at creating a role and then holding true to it throughout the run of the show.”
The Importance of Being Earnest is a fine example of how classic plays never lose their sheen. Phillips tells me that CSC’s production is selling like teacakes and cucumber sandwiches. Better get yours now; the production runs through Dec. 16.
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