Toronto’s Hart House Theatre tackles Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s best-known comedy of manners — “a serious comedy for trivial people”, or is it the other way ’round? — roasts Victorian manners and stuffiness, with a series of twists and convolutions which will tickle even a post-Seinfeld audience. Several of the roles are veritable gifts to actors, and while some of the language has begun to creak, many of Wilde’s observations have become even more trenchant over time. Earnest is exactly the kind of show that Hart House does extremely well, but while the text still sparkles and gleams, I found this production to be more mixed.
Jack (Michael Hogan) and Algernon (Victor Pokinko) are intact and acted beautifully: Pokinko’s Algy is so effeminate that he borders on complete androgyny (and is all the stronger for it!); while Hogan executes Jack’s emotional ping-pong — anger! mourning! cheer! surprise! — with deftness and glee. The two have excellent physical and comic chemistry and bounce off one another beautifully: we can see why these two men, despite being diametrical opposites, are nevertheless the best of friends.
This great chemistry also carries over to the female leads: Eliza Martin’s Cecily is a charming ingenue, far cleverer than a country girl ought to be — and entirely credible in being so; Hannah Drew’s Gwendolen properly comes into herself in the second act, when she and Martin get a full fifteen minutes of sharp, witty language — and, together, they knock it out of the park.
But poor, poor Nicole Wilson. Wilson is an excellent actress who most recently gave life to another gorgon, the tough-as-nails lead in Fringe’s award-winning Potosi. Here she finds herself drowning in Lady Bracknell’s enormous pleats and bustles. She’s being asked to play a character three times her own age, and my guest and I agreed that it just never gelled.
Bracknell needs a thick velvet glove to cover her iron fist — she should be the best-mannered, best-bred, highest-class person on the stage, a woman who would never hurt a fly, but whose judgemental glares could kill a horse at 20 yards — but director Cory Doran turns Bracknell into such a physically-intimidating, angry presence that it all comes out rather confused. Wilson does the best she can — her handbag interrogation really shows her chops — but the character’s thrust is so muddled that not even someone with her talents can quite manage the heavy lifting.
The smaller roles are a similar mixed bag. Andrei Preda is an arresting Canon Chasuble, looking every inch a country vicar in a perfect pair of round-rimmed spectacles; Bailey Green’s Miss Prism is twenty years too young, but acted the part well and is essentially believable. The two servants would be better seen and not heard: this is not a problem with the actors, but with what they’ve been asked to do. These are small roles, but the production decides to make them more elaborate and “interesting” — and I found that the effect was mostly just irritating. Can’t the officious manservants argue over a set change without literally squeaking all the way through it? (Does this joke really need to be dragged out for that long?)
I’ve seen Brendan Kleiman’s sets before; his work for Romeo & Juliet was particularly strong, and showed that he can produce remarkable work within a Hart House budget. Here, I thought the set looked profoundly cheap, as if the designer had been asked to do far more than was affordable. Some of the individual pieces were eye-catching, but others puzzled me: would someone like Algernon sit for a stunning, larger-than-life watercolour portrait, then forego the usual elaborate Victorian frame, replacing it with paper doilies?
While Ming Wong’s costumes are visually interesting, my guest and I came away with the feeling that every character had emerged from a different production. This was likely the desired effect, and there’s some interesting thinkity-think analysis to be shared — characters who come from town are dressed in dark colours; those from the country, in whites; and those who inhabit both worlds in transitional greys — but mostly we just felt things clashed. The individual pieces are fine: as one would expect with Wilde, the ladies’ hats are a particular accomplishment. Taken together, they’re less than the sum of their parts.
Oscar Wilde’s script is as strong as ever, but this you didn’t need to be told. This text is so rich and rewarding that this production still hangs together: if you’ve never seen Earnest, this is as good an opportunity as any to tuck in. But while there’s some strong acting and moments of outstanding chemistry here, I came away feeling that certain directorial choices robbed this production of its full effect: these actors and designers can do better.
- The Importance of Being Earnest plays Hart House (7 Hart House Circle) through October 4th, 2014.
- Plays nightly at 8 PM Wednesday through Saturday, with occasional matinees; see website for details.
- Tickets are $28; $15 for students, $17 for seniors. Further discounts and subscriptions are available.
- Tickets may be ordered online, by telephone (416-978-8849) or in-person three hours before a performance.
- Be aware that herbal cigarettes will be smoked on-stage.
Photo of Hannah Drew and Michael Adam Hogan by Scott Gorman