Dave Rabjohn, Associate Toronto Critic
Oscar Wilde’s philosophy is best demonstrated by his paradoxical aphorism: “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.” On the surface, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a rollicking, intellectual farce, peppered with witty dialogue, preposterous situations, and outsized characters. But it is the rich subtext of parody that skewers the mores of Victorian society and the motifs of marriage, social stratification, and hypocrisy that have given this play its popular longevity more than a hundred years after its opening. Theatre on the Ridge has recognized the depths of Wilde’s most popular work with its recent preview performance in Port Perry, Ontario. The writing speaks for itself, but it is the acting that elevates this production.
Wilde’s witty and sometimes complex dialogue demands a careful (and usually very upbeat) pace. A further challenge is to define each word with clarity – so the audience can absorb all of the playwright’s wicked satire. This was achieved with distinction by the entire cast. This achievement begins with Daniel McCormack playing Lady Bracknell. The Brian Bedford – esque gender switching decision is always good for some extra comic appeal. But this was not a silly parlour room trick with prosthetics – Mr. McCormack’s acting had a full range of integrity. Some of his speeches were raced through with comic delight, but, again, with full clarity and range of voice. His simpering face, pursed lips and judgemental eyes both drew in the audience and gave fellow actors plenty of canvas with which to work themselves. He worked his small fan like a conductor, punctuating memorable moments.
Lady Bracknell stirs the main plot. Close friends Jack Worthing and Algernon discover that each leads a double life to avoid tedious routine. The name Ernest appeals to their love interests – Gwendolyn and Cecily. Lady Bracknell refuses to allow a romance between her charge, Gwendolyn, and Jack due to his upbringing as an orphan. Algernon also faces difficulty with Cecily as he must get himself christened with the name Ernest. The governess, Miss Prism, and the reverend Dr. Chasuble enter the fray and discover secret identities and past mistakes that finally bring all lovers together.
Algernon, played by Barry McCluskey, covers the many elements of a dandy that Wilde creates, partly in his own image. Mr. McCluskey minces with delight putting on a piqued face, dramatically crossing legs and lounging in every space he can find. His accent, like the entire cast is light, vain, and thoroughly consistent. His work with food is always delightful as he devours cucumber sandwiches and small muffins – satirising the habits of the rich. His good friend Jack, played by Jack Copland, tries very hard to be the adult in the room. His seriousness belies his appetite for fun. His comic work is highlighted in his funereal garb complete with ridiculous Lincolnish top hat. His fake sad demeanour barely covers his obvious raffish behaviour. Again, each actor delineates their lines with complete control.
The girls are equally colourful and saucy. Cecily (Lexi MacRae) bounces around the stage with youthful energy and twinkling eyes that seem deceptively vacant. Gwendolyn (Manon Ens-Lapointe,) like Jack, also tries to be the adult in the room but the farce continues as the girls spar over lovers (and food) and then become best of angst-ridden friends as they melodramatically discover the artifice of their partners.
Miss Prism (Frances Loiselle) and Dr. Chasuble (Duncan Gibson-Lockhart) comically represent that servile level of society – they revel in their chaste roles, but are also parodied – the reverend with his unbecoming hat and Miss Prism’s meltdown under the bombastic questioning of Lady Bracknell. Equally appealing are the performances of the butler Lane (Ian Williams) and the maidservant (Demi-Lee Bainbridge.) They act almost like a Greek chorus, observing in disbelief the self-righteous hypocrisy of their “betters.” The fun comes in their contrast – Lane always the droll, stony faced servant and Merriman, the excitable maid who tries her best to be calm, but her hilarious anxiety is on full display with her expressive face.
It was unfortunate that the background projections were partly washed out by the stage lighting, especially when we were teased with their brilliance during set changes. The costumes, coordinated by Judith Sanders, were effective in that they were mostly subtle rarely overplaying the actors. This allowed the more ostentatious moments to be even more fun such as Bracknell’s colourful checks or Gwendolyn’s high peacock feathers.
The directing team of Michael Serres and Annette Stokes probably conducted the pitch-perfect pace and drew out the worthy line delineation. But it is up to the actors to deliver and in this they sparkled. Wilde’s commentary on the ostentatiously artificial society is never far from the surface, but this cast also kept us wildly entertained. Their skill allowed us to never miss a joke - Algernon speaking about his father: “we were never on speaking terms – he died when I was one.” Cue the snare drum please.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Theatre on the Ridge – Port Perry, Ontario.
Cast featuring: Barry McCluskey, Jack Copland, Manon Ens-Lapointe, Daniel McCormack, Lexi MacRae.
Production staff: Director – Michael Serres, Annette Stokes. Set and production design – Carey Nicholson. Costume coordination – Judith Sanders.
Production runs through August 10, 2019.
Schedule and ticket information: www.theatreontheridge.ca