‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ at Aurora Theatre Company breathes new life into Oscar Wilde’s witticisms

A woman in a yellow dress adjusting a man's suit collar.
Katrina Romulo/Staff

When “The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People” first premiered in 1895, critic William Archer said in The World: “(The play) imitates nothing, represents nothing, is nothing, except a sort of rondo capriccioso, in which the artist’s fingers run with crisp irresponsibility up and down the keyboard of life.”

Archer was arguably wrong on his first point: Wilde may have admitted in the title that his play was “trivial” by design, but it’s improbable that a play that signifies “nothing” to people should become the second-most quoted one in the English language. But on his second — the implication that Oscar Wilde’s fingerprints are all over this play, binding it together — Archer was undoubtedly correct. Wilde’s witticisms grant “The Importance of Being Earnest” its charm with uncannily sharp writing and timelessness. Adaptations of this play need only treat Wilde’s composition with due reverence to find success.

Luckily, Aurora Theatre Company’s rendition of “The Importance of Being Earnest” readily delivers this achievement. Directed by Josh Costello and presented with “two brisk, ten minute intermissions,” the play revives Wilde’s infamous wit with interactive staging and a stellar cast.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” follows Jack Worthing (Mohammad Shehata) and Algernon Moncrieff (Patrick Kelly Jones) in their dueling romantic exploits. Jack pretends to have a brother called Ernest in order to escape from his home in the country, where he lives with his young ward Cecily (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera). Here, Jack pretends to be “Ernest Worthing” in order to court Algernon’s cousin Gwendolyn (Anna Ishida), who is forbidden to marry Jack by her stern mother Lady Bracknell (Sharon Lockwood). This gives Algernon, who often pretends to visit his very fictional, very sick friend “Bunbury” in the country in order to escape the city an idea. He heads to Jack’s home in the country and pretends to be “Ernest,” Jack’s fake brother, in order to court Cecily (which, incredibly, works). Two women, both in love with an “Ernest” that doesn’t exist — let the shenanigans ensue.

These shenanigans, of course, largely take the form of verbal sparring — this is Oscar Wilde, after all. The cast is well-equipped to shoulder Wilde’s punchy dialogue, as demonstrated with its leads, Shehata and Jones. The two men play off of each other amicably, spending almost the entire first act of the play circling the stage together, spouting off rapid-fire banter and delivering punchlines with pitch-perfect timing. Shehata’s high-pitched incredulity at discovering Algernon in the country, or Jones’s later dedication to shoving muffins in his mouth during Act 2, both denote sterling comic performances.

But Shehata and Jones aren’t alone in their mastery of comedic timing. Lockwood embodies hilarious stuffiness as Lady Bracknell, and both Rivera’s comically wide-eyed Cecily and Ishida’s shrewd Gwendolyn are a treat. It’s a testament to the cast’s excellent rapport, as well as Wilde’s writing, that there isn’t a dull beat in the entire play.

Costello’s staging works to keep the audience engaged with the action of the narrative. This version of “The Importance of Being Earnest” is staged in the round with characters orbiting the stage, entering and exiting from every corner of the room and interacting with the audience — at one point, Cecily “waters her garden” by spritzing audience members in the front row with a water bottle. Best of all, characters often break the fourth wall, following witty rejoinders with a literal wink to the audience, overtly incorporating Wilde’s irreverence into every scene.

This cheekiness is perhaps what has helped make this “trivial comedy for serious people” (as the original script’s subtitle reads) so enduringly popular and immortally funny, and it’s a spirit fully realized by the Aurora Theatre Company. Wilde’s convoluted plot is presented with impeccable skill and received a bounty of laughs, making a faultlessly convincing case for why, 124 years later, Wilde’s “rondo capriccioso” is a tune that audiences will want to listen to over and over again.

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ will be running through May 12 at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.

Grace Orriss covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].