Oscar Wilde described it, simply, as “a trivial comedy for serious people.”
His farcical play, The Importance of Being Earnest, was becoming a runaway hit in 1895 London – until it was unceremoniously yanked from view after a scandalous court case ‘outed’ his homosexuality to Victorian society, ruining his career.
While some have argued that Wilde’s portrait of double lives in town and country has a deeper subtext related to his own double life, the fact remains that audiences have long taken the play to their hearts on its own terms; as nothing more, or less, than one of the wittiest divertissements ever concocted for the stage.
Now Candace Radcliffe and Rick Harmon – artistic directors of Crescent Beach-based Beach House Theatre – are hoping the often-revived Wilde classic will work its magic yet again as the main show for their fourth summer season, showcasing another cast of appealing young actors.
Tickets go on sale June 25 at 7 a.m. (details at www.beachhgousetheatre.org) for the show, which runs only from Aug. 11-16 (8 p.m.) at Beach House’s state of the art-tent theatre at Blackie Spit.
Since it’s such a limited-run, high-demand ticket, booking early is, as always, recommended.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a most accessible show, Radcliffe and Harmon point out, particularly thanks to a somewhat streamlined, but faithful, adaptation by UBC theatre department head Errol Durbach.
“He took out a number of references from the time that people would not ‘get’ nowadays, or would have slowed the pace down,” Harmon said.
“It’s a great, bubbly script,” said Radcliffe, “and he’s made it a little better.”
And, unlike the past three Beach House shows – Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night and A Comedy Of Errors – it has the benefit of being in modern English.
“It isn’t Shakespearean dialogue,” chuckled Radcliffe, noting the already-expressed concerns of some audience members.
Not that Shakespeare has been forsaken forever by Beach House, she added.
“We still love Shakespeare, and, eventually, we’ll do Shakespeare again. But we started this with the goal of picking classics that we loved and knew that other people would love as well.”
The plot of Earnest, as has been pointed out, is minus overt social or political messages – although Wilde’s epigram-heavy portrait of Victorian Britain is not without its satirical barbs for the society that ultimately rejected him.
Algernon Moncrieff, idlest of idle young gentlemen (Patrick Dodd), and his best friend, ‘Ernest’ (Tom Gage,) have a somewhat awkward meeting – Ernest wishes to propose to Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen (Bethany Stanley), but before Algernon will give his blessing to the union, he has a pressing question.
Why does Ernest’s cigarette case bear the inscription, “from little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack”?
All is soon clear – Ernest is actually Jack Worthing, a respectable countryman and guardian of a pretty and wealthy young ward, Cecily (Marika Stanger). He makes frequent trips to London on the excuse that he is checking up on dissolute younger brother Ernest – while, in reality, as soon as he reaches the metropolis, he assumes the guise, and all the bad habits, of his fictitious sibling.
This prompts a similar confession from Algernon – to escape unwelcome social obligations in town, he has created an invalid friend of very fragile health, Bunbury, who he must frequently visit in the country; which also provides a cover for his own romantic escapades .
While Gwendolen accepts Ernest’s proposal (her admiration for the name Ernest amounts almost to a fetish), her mother, the imperious Lady Bracknell (Michelle Collier) rejects him as a most unsuitable match.
As the action shifts to the country, Jack attempts to persuade Canon Chasuble (James Walker) to re-baptize him as Ernest. Meanwhile Algernon has arrived on the scene and is fascinating Cecily in the guise of Jack’s reprobate brother, while romance is also in the air for Chasuble, in the person of Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism (Carol Mann).
In the ensuing chaos, Paul Richardson plays three supporting roles, Lane, Gribsby and Morton, while Paul Rancourt is featured as long-suffering manservant Merriman.
“The cast is great, and they’re really up for the challenge,” Harmon said. “There is a great chemistry between Patrick Dodd as Algernon and Tom Gage as Jack; and Michelle as Lady Bracknell – she’s done a lot of Gilbert & Sullivan shows – came into the audition and just blew us away.”
Radcliffe and Harmon add they’re happy to be able to present some Peninsula-raised actors – including Stanley, Stanger and Richardson – in larger showcase roles, while presenting fellow local James Walker, usually known for over-the-top comedy, in a significant change-of-pace as the country canon.
“It’s a very different role for James,” agreed Harmon, “but I think people are going to be impressed.”