Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
In keeping with Oscar Wilde’s intent to create a “trivial comedy for serious people,” this weekend’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest filled Bond Hall to the brim with wit, banter, and laughter. Director Patrick Ross ’15 used the original four-act script, but his directorial decisions made this interpretation a singular experience.
At Friday night’s dress rehearsal, the night before first performance, the cast was positively giddy. Conversing in their British accents long before taking the stage, cast members excitedly assembled amidst the hullabaloo that is a final dress rehearsal—though this one was markedly happy and stress-free.
The set behind the actors, a finely furnished English parlor nestled comfortably into the wood paneling and stained glass of Bond Hall, created a cozy and intimate atmosphere. Though only four of us made up the audience for the rehearsal, excitement built as final details were arranged and the opening music cued.
The play itself is purely and absurdly a linguistic delight. With one sassy witticism after another, no character says please or thank you without playfully subverting a commonplace phrase. Just as Wilde seems to have been splatter-painting a portrait with a palette of zingers, the cast of this production reveled in obvious enjoyment of their characters and their dynamics.
The sauntering dialogue follows two men who pretend to be named Earnest and their romantic pursuits. The first would-be Earnest is actually Jack Worthing, played most effusively Caroline Batten ’14. Jack butts heads again and again with his difficult and excessively entertaining friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Cole Turner ’15)—who pretends to be an Earnest himself in later scenes. Turner tackled his sassy role with elegant and pompous posturing to produce a sleek and playful caricature.
Jack is in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax, played crisply and gracefully by Michaela Shuchman ’16. Gwendolen’s relationship causes great concern in her domineering mother Lady Augusta Bracknell, whom Hannah Kosman ’14 played with impeccable disdain. And much to Jack’s consternation, Algie falls in love with Jack’s ward, Cecily Cardew. Michele Johnson ’16 gave Cecily a playful spunkiness and naïveté that contrasted most comically with her austere yet adorable governess, Ms. Prism, Allison McKinnon ’13.
Ridiculous shenanigans ensue concerning Jack’s murky pedigree, the identity of the elusive “Earnest,” Ms. Prism’s romance with clergyman Dr. Chasuble (Preston Cooper ’15), and the three couples’ misunderstandings—all of which escalates to a final revelation of everyone’s true identities and loves. In the process, hearts are won, lost, then won again, frosting is smeared on faces in anger, hats are stolen, grammar books are flung, and imaginary friends are killed off. By and large, the actors navigated this web admirably, though there were moments—particularly in arguments—when the volume and tone used to communicate anger might have been reeled in to strike a subtler and less cartoonish note.
The show’s exaggerated farce worked, however, in the frosting fight. Believing they were competing for the love of the same Earnest, a civil teatime between Gwendolen and Cecily turned contentious and confections turned into ammunition. Suchman and Johnson had marvelous chemistry as they flung insults and frosting, squealing with ladylike indignation while smearing cake on each other’s faces.
The show was punctuated with these hysterically absurd scenes with supporting characters, which also showcased Ross’s creativity. Mr. Gribsby (Sasha Rojavin ’15), a surly lawyer, managed to steal everything in sight, fitting multiple hats on his head. Aaron Kroeber ’16 produced laughs by adorably popping his head through a window as Moulton, Jack’s gardener. As Algernon’s servant Lane and Jack’s servant, Merriman, Martin Froger-Silva ’16 used physical comedy masterfully whenever on stage. Froger-Silva opened the play and set the tone of humor as he dusted the living room, adjusting objects for no reason at all and slyly taking a swig of amber liquid from a decanter.
Ross’ stylistic take on the play as a director was most noticeable in the ways in which he played with the dynamics and chemistry between characters. There was palpable sexual tension between Algernon and Lane, who stole kisses in the opening scenes, giving a completely new understanding of the dialogue Wilde wrote for them. The relationship between Algernon and Cecily in this rendition is forced and laughably awkward, whereas Jack and Gwendolen cannot keep their hands off each other. Ross said that he knew almost immediately upon deciding to direct Earnest the choices he would make that added different angles.
While the changes added intrigue and humor, their implications could not be fully explored because, of course, no part of Wilde’s script was changed. Nonetheless, it was fascinating to see how scenes could be altered from other versions of the show without changing a word. The audience shall have to live with the frustration of never finding out what would become of Algernon and Lane’s romantic tension.
As Cooper said when asked to discus his favorite aspect of the show, Earnest is a “play you can enjoy but it leaves you with a distinctive impression when you leave the theatre.” And this team succeeded in a show that was both exceedingly enjoyable and decidedly distinctive, doing Wilde’s work justice and making audiences very, very happy. (I only witnessed an audience of four losing their breath from laughing, but reportedly each subsequent performance yielded the same result but multiplied). This production of Earnest exulted in imparting the exact message that Gwendolen herself makes very clear; “In matters of grave sincerity, style and not sincerity is the vital thing.”
Photos courtesy of Patrick Ross ’15.