Theatre Review: The Importance of Being Earnest revels in its excesses

In 1895 there was probably little that would have been considered appropriate about Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest; in the hands the Arts Club Theatre Company in 2012 that inappropriateness is taken to a whole new level.

Much of the strength of this silly comedy of manners comes from its language and while working hard to ensure Wilde’s witty repartee is not lost, director David Mackay ups the ante by presenting a much broader version of what was no doubt originally intended.  Fart jokes and a reference to “seeing you next Tuesday” aside, I admit to enjoying some of the broader antics and appreciated Mackay’s unabashed acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of the story and in calling this spade a spade.

As Algernon, one-half of the two bored toffs, Charlie Gallant is a bundle of pure energy as he literally eats his way through Wilde’s words.  Ryan Biel finds the absurd awkwardness in his Ernest and as the story builds to its climax he is at times as unstoppable as Gallant but I’m surprised once again at his fondness for winks and nods that break the fourth wall; in an already outrageous production that includes many asides to the audience, the addition of his own manages to step over even Mackay’s broadly drawn lines.

Allan Gray, Allan Zinyk, Charlie Gallant, Ryan Beil in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Members of the cast of the Arts Club production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Emily Cooper.

As the two love interests, Amber Lewis gives her Gwendolen a wonderful edge with enough daggered looks that I was surprised the stage wasn’t strewn with her victims by the end.  Ella Simon finds herself a little inside her head compared to those around her but at times was a nice counterbalance to all the chaos.  Both Deborah Williams and Simon Bradbury have great fun as more common Victorians, proving once again that riches don’t necessarily make you any smarter.  And in one of the best performances of the night Allan Zinyk proves he is every inch the imposing lady as he gives Lady Bracknell a hardass gender bend that was as funny as it was frightening.

Set designer Amir Ofek helps bring Mackay’s overall vision into focus with a huge vanity mirror and top hat in act one and wonderful tower of handbags, suitcases and steamer trunks as if suggesting each might contain their own secret.  Nancy Bryan’s costumes are appropriate but somehow felt muted against some of the extreme choices made elsewhere.  Murray Price provides some nice musical underscores but at times they felt arbitrary.

No doubt Wilde purists will feel somehow slighted by this production, but it’s hard not to admire one that unapologetically revels in its excess.

3 Out of 5 Stars The Importance of Being Earnest

By Oscar Wilde.  Directed by David Mackay.  An Arts Club Theatre Company production.  At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage through April 15, 2012.  Visit http://www.artsclub.com for tickets and information.

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