BareStage’s production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ delivers wild humor

BareStage Productions/Riley Bathauer/RIley Bathauer Photography/Courtesy

Oscar Wilde’s classic play “The Importance of Being Earnest” takes a convoluted path through late-19th-century Britain’s high society as Wilde explores with his unique brand of humor the upper class’s many shortcomings. BareStage’s performance of Wilde’s high farce, despite certain stumbling blocks, manages to capture Wilde’s humor in a mostly satisfying production of the play.

The play centers on two main characters, Algernon Moncrieff and John Worthing — also nicknamed Jack — who have both lied about their names to their significant others, leading both women to believe that their fiance’s name is Ernest Worthing. The two men end up in in a world of trouble when the women Cecily and Gwendolen meet and mistakenly think they might be engaged to the same man.

BareStage’s adaptation is straightforward and faithful to the original text. There were, however, some interesting choices in production that deviated from the norm — for example, the three acts of the play were performed in two parts, split by an intermission, and the first part was rather strangely chopped in the middle with a confusing but creative set-changing and dance break. Overall, the boldest and most successful moves in this production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” were the actors’ interpretations of the characters.

Elizabeth Mathis, who plays Gwendolen Fairfax, was the clear highlight of the play. Her performance brought a certain liveliness to the stage, especially in the play’s standout scene, Gwendolen and Cecily’s fight. Mathis’ performance turned this scene into one of the few in the production that made seeing a live performance of Wilde’s play seem vital to appreciating the literature on the page: In short, her acting brought the play to life.

Mathis interpreted Gwendolen as both gutsier and more neurotic than the portrayal the play’s 2002 movie adaptation starring Colin Firth arguably standardized. And her interpretive choice worked wonderfully, making the character more likable and better suited for a theatrical production. In addition, Mathis had outstanding comic delivery with impeccable timing and a clear understanding of what it is that makes Wilde, in particular, funny.

The more minor characters of the play were also a delight, especially the butler, Lane — played by Lelan Fernando — and the governess, Miss Prism, played by Natasha Munasinghe. Both actors were scene stealers, wonderfully funny despite their limited number of lines, and these characters were creatively reinterpreted to emphasize the role of the working-class characters in the play. Fernando did excellent work as a comedic straight-man. Though most of his time onstage was spent in silence, even small gestures, such as his nervous movements to protect the china as Jack and Algernon fought in the parlor, drew laughs from the audience.

Munasinghe shone in her role as a radically reinvented character. Though Wilde’s play portrayed Prism as a rather feeble, foolish old woman, Munasinghe’s performance reworked the character into a more dynamic figure — at once lax, bitingly severe and unabashedly libidinous as she attempts repeatedly throughout the play to seduce Reverend Canon Chasuble.

“Prism … was more of a personal thing for me,” director Ran Flanders said in an email. “I have a great dislike for (the) ‘stupid’ character, as I believe everyone is rather intelligent in their own ways. So I wanted to explore that the reason Prism is terrible at her job is that she simply doesn’t care and would rather be of gallivanting with the (priest) and John.”

As the play goes on, however, certain scenes fell flat, especially the one in the very beginning when Algernon and Jack wrestle over a cigarette case. Though the scene was generally well-received by the audience, the insertion of slapstick into the play was somewhat uncomfortable to watch, and the unpalatability stems from a clash between slapstick and Wilde’s brand of cynical humor.  

Characteristically languid, sardonic, cynical and understated, Wilde’s humor hinges on subtle absurdities — the irony in the contrast between their hyper-refined manners and setting, and the silly idiosyncrasies of their speech and circumstance. So, in moments where the characters break their icy refinement and allow their manner to be silly or over-exaggerated, the farce becomes unbelievable. Wilde’s spell is broken, and the foundations of his humor collapse. It’s awkward.

The weakest places in the play were the spots in which the actors lost their grip on Wilde’s (admittedly slippery) humor — but the cast shone in the many scenes in which the interpretation was good, and it excelled overall in BareStage’s production of Wilde’s last and most popular play.

Lindsay Choi covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].