Critic's PickIt doesn’t really matter whether your preference at teatime is for cake or muffins. You’ll be pleased with Cincinnati Shakespeare’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, full of sweets, bon mots and precisely timed comic performances. The skilled cast finds humor in every scene, line and character, making Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people” from 1895 one that remains fresh, frivolous and fun for contemporary audiences. It seems that local theater fans have caught wind of the entertainment, and tickets are already in short supply for the production, onstage through mid-December.
Although each role is essential to the show’s well-oiled machine, director Brian Isaac Phillips has shaped the cast into a comic ensemble by focusing on deliberate but not stilted delivery of Wilde’s sharply honed script. Almost every line drips with humor, and CSC’s actors manage to wring out every last drop. Brent Vimtrup imbues Algernon Moncrieff with effervescent silliness. He’s one of two co-conspirators who use imaginary people to make life in more manageable in the class-conscious, often hypocritical world of Victorian England. He runs off to wherever he cares to be to be of assistance to the non-existent “Bunbury.” Likewise John Worthing, played with a load of frustration and fuming by Jeremy Dubin, uses an imagined ne’er-do-well brother named Ernest as his excuse for trips to the London, purportedly to get extract him from difficult scrapes.
Their deceptions unravel when they fall in love — Algernon with Cecily Cardew (Jessie Wray Goodman), Worthing’s sweetly innocent ward, and John with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Sara Clark), the worldlier daughter of the formidable Lady Bracknell (played in drag by the imposing Jim Hopkins).
Both young women profess to be able to fall in love only with a man named “Ernest,” so Algernon and John each scheme to assume on that moniker. Wilde’s play is cleverly plotted with important roles for two minor characters, the fussy Miss Prism and the nervous Rev. Chasuble. Miranda McGee makes a lot of the prudish governess with a serious case of sniffles, and Paul Riopelle takes a nice turn as the tentative, chaste man of the cloth; their awkward romance evokes some well-timed giggles. Rounding out the cast are two amusing butlers, Sam Rabinovitz as the dryly-arch Lane and Travis Emery as the nonplussed Scotsman Merriman.
Wilde’s play needs to roll out like a well-oiled machine, and Phillips direction has made that happen. The company’s smallish stage is a bit cramped for the action, especially when a half-dozen or so of them are on together, but Travis McElroy’s set (it’s a revolving platform that enables Act I’s posh city parlor, replete with a fainting couch, to turn to Act II’s country garden with a trellis and climbing roses, and then to Act III’s efficient sitting room in a country estate) nicely accommodates the action. Phillips has choreographed several clever moments, including an ebb-and-flow conversation between the two women — instant friend who become rivals and then wounded victims of the manipulative men — and an especially delicious moment when Dubin’s furious but minuscule Jack challenge Hopkins’ imperious Lady Bracknell, who rises to full height and looms over him. It’s a great sight gag.
The production has too many comic moments to cite, but comment must be made on the scrap between John and Algernon after they’ve been found out. They sit by a tea stand with Dubin’s John berating the blithely confident Algernon, who keeps popping tiny muffins in his mouth while delivering a stream of foolish rationales. When John goes for one, he gets his hand slapped as Algie continues to wolf down the baked goods. The scene, concluding the second act, leaves him sitting alone at the table, giggling and wriggling with self-satisfaction at his good fortune, a feast seasoned with innocent social disruption — a perfect example of the “Bunburying” he loves.
The production is great fun to watch, and Heidi Jo Schiemer’s costumes reinforce the characters. Vimtrup shows up in the country wearing a dandified bowler hat; Dubin’s John is natty without being overstated (although his yellow suit is complemented with a sky-blue vest in the second and third acts). Clark’s outspoken Gwendolen is attired in several forceful crimson ensembles, while Goodman’s more genteel Cecily is in frilly white. As Lady Bracknell, Hopkins already imposing figure finishes the show in a teal gown with an enormous hat. In fact, every aspect of The Importance of Being Earnest is carefully calculated to amuse. It’s a fine treat for holiday entertainment.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, is onstage through Dec. 16.