By Lori Bosworth
Love is not a prerequisite of marriage in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which opened at Hart House Theatre on Friday, September 21, 2014. The controversial Irish playwright lampoons the English aristocracy and its rules of etiquette in his biting satire.
Like Wilde, who lived a dual life in a marriage while maintaining a homosexual affair, The Importance of Being Earnest focuses on the double lives of Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, two young gentlemen of Britain’s leisure class. The two men decide to take on alternative personalities, each becoming “Ernest,” in order to have different experiences in the city and the country. Jack is intent on marrying the esteemed Gwendolyn Fairfax, but must convince her mother, the upright Lady Bracknell, of his qualifications for marriage. When the flamboyant Algernon or Algy as he is called, surprises Jack at his country house, events become a little tangled. Algy makes a mockery of Victorian mores as he pursues the lovely Cecily.
Wilde trivializes the upper class to extremes when his leading ladies express dislike for their lovers based solely on their names and caricatures society’s rules and propriety.
The play’s dialogue is ridiculous at times and full of epigrams such as Lane’s assertion that he had been married only once and it “was in consequence of a misunderstanding between [himself] and a young person.” Lady Bracknell, harnessed by upper class values, espouses statements that are always axiomatic. You do have to listen closely in order to appreciate the quick wit of Wilde since Cory Doran’s direction is fast-paced. In fact, several of the actors had difficulty keeping up and stumbled upon their lines a few times.
Victor Pokinko is devilishly delightful as the mischievous Algernon, giving a nuanced performance with wonderful facial expressions and masterful physical comedy. Nicole Wilson is larger than life as the formidable Lady Bracknell.
Jackie McClelland’s well-chosen props include the massive portrait of Algernon (a Victorian selfie?) that adorns his living room. Ming Wong’s opulent costumes underscore one of the play’s themes by showcasing the extravagance of the British upper class.
But it’s Andrei Preda’s comedic timing that is priceless as the Reverend Canon Chasuble, embodying the religious figure’s hypocrisy with unabashed enthusiasm.
With an intermission that does not occur until about an hour and 35 minutes into the play, the production does test the audience’s attention span at times; however, Wilde’s rapid-fire dialogue keeps this play moving.
Hart House Theatre’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest is performed in Toronto from September 19 to October 4, 2014