A decades old habit of providing Bowen with quality entertainment was resumed by ‘Theatre on the Isle’ with the opening of The Importance of Being Earnest on Friday, Nov. 10. A sold-out house at Tir-na-nOg Theatre was witness to a laugh-riot and the evening heralded another TOTI presentation of must-see theatrical fare.
Oscar Wilde’s play requires actors capable of taking the audience upon a wild and energetic ride, a ride which requires precise timing and the ability to share the stage, and the laughs. Such attributes are very much within the bailiwick of the cast that director Martin Clarke assembled for the show.
Considered Wilde’s finest play, Earnest is a comic send-up of England’s late-Victorian era society, not so much a play of action but one of manners and wit. It is the tale of Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, combatants, of a sort, who avoid the social mores of the day by embracing something Algernon calls ‘bunburying.’
Bunburying provides the two with a measure of respite from London’s mannered society but it also makes them deceitful, something they cannot afford to be. For both Algernon and Jack have a woman they are trying to court and in order for them to succeed, each must find a way to become earnest. Or rather, Ernest.
You must see the play to learn the meaning of that.
Bowen talent in Earnest
Calder Stewart has become a mainstay on Bowen stages and his performance here as Algernon Moncrieff is spot-on. There is a boldness in his characterization of the loquacious Algernon and the relentless Stewart is quick with the retorts and creates an eminently likable rake.
When Stewart and Frazer Elliott as Jack Worthing are together on stage – and a good portion of the play requires it – the chemistry is strong, the banter deliciously fun and the laughs frequent. The play requires Elliott to make Worthing both conventional and venturous and the actor manages it with a seeming ease.
One of great comic characters in Western Theatre is the upper-crust and acidic Lady Bracknell and here Susan Clarke, who returns to the TOTI stage after an absence of too many years, is perfectly cast. Ms. Clarke employs the right amount of social arrogance and disdain and makes her return a captivating success, doling out laughs like a Deep Bay householder doles out candy on Halloween.
The object of one of the smitten men’s desire is the fetching Gwendolyn Fairfax, played by Ainsley Szewchuk, while the fanciful Cecily Cardew, played by the ever-amusing Katalina Bernard, is sought by the other. These women are stuck within the confines of a society that gave females little room to move but while the society of the day offered them fewer advantages, Wilde did not create female characters any less entertaining, or intelligent, than their male counterparts.
Indeed, the playwright granted Miss Fairfax and Miss Cardew the choice to say yes or no, something not always available to British women at the close of the 19th century. Further, both are given a slew of bon mots and Szewchuk and Bernard make full use of every word. Each actor delivers her character with great aplomb and pushes the plot ever-forward.
There are also delightful performances in supporting roles from Graham Ritchie, another island stage veteran, as Reverend Chasuble, and Susanna Braund as the stern Miss Prism. Island piano-man Marc Gawthrop stretches his artistic muscles nicely as Merriman, a butler, while Michael Epp turns in a droll performance as Lane, a manservant.
The play is considered a light-comedy, not as deep as other Wilde fare, but it still raises issues relevant today. Should the circumstances of our birth brand us? And who gets to say what is acceptable in our world? Is it not okay to operate outside societies ‘norms’ without raising hackles?
Director Clarke brings these issues to the fore by keeping Wilde’s words in the forefront, no elongated set pieces to distract and the movement plays as natural and never intrudes. Mr. Clarke gives us a moment here and there to catch our breath but, overall, the pace is rapid-fire.
The production is stage-managed by Maureen Sawasy, Shirley Wrinch created the beautiful costumes from an extravagant era and Judi Gedye performs the role of property master. Epp did double duty by building and designing the period set alongside Ian Davidson. Jacqueline Massey is the promotion designer and Kate Coffey and Tina Nielsen take care of ticket sales and publicity.
Oscar Wilde: Champion of words
As for the playwright, his life took a turn for the tragic. Only months after the 1895 premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest, he was arrested and put on trial, essentially for homosexuality. After a lurid trial, the court of the day pronounced him guilty and he spent 2 years in prison under the cruelest of conditions. Upon his release, with his health deteriorating, he fled to France, never to set foot in England again. Oscar Wilde died in Paris on November 30, 1900 at the age of 46.
Earnest was the last play he ever wrote.
But here’s this: Though it came too late for him to enjoy it, Wilde has had his vindication. He is revered in theatre circles the world over and considered one of the greatest wits in the history of the English language. Earnest is still produced by professional and community theatre companies and is a mainstay of high-school drama departments; it has also been made into a film 3 times.
You’ll find Wilde’s word ‘bunbury’ in dictionaries today, including the Urban Dictionary (bunbury: ‘To galavant around under a false identity…performing various licentious and immoral acts’).
Theatre on the Isle
And finally, even here in Canada, where funding for theatre is often wanting, theatre companies often have as many as 8 or more ‘previews,’ performances prior to opening night in front of an audience who do not pay or pay but little. This is done to provide the actors, the production, with extra time to learn about moments, to fine-tune the work, to gain confidence.
On Bowen, and with community theatre in general, such a luxury is not possible as the actors, the director and the crew mount the play while working jobs, going to school, tending to family, etc. There are no previews, at most a production may get a single run in front of a smattering of friends the night before they open. Under such conditions, it is near-astonishing that Theatre on the Isle routinely produces such wholly realized and highly-entertaining work, and from the opening night on.
So our theatrical hat is tipped to TOTI.
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest continues at Tir-na-nOg Theatre at 585 Rivendell Drive on Thursday, Nov. 16, Friday the 17th and Saturday the 18th. The curtain rises at 7:30.