Published: May 5, 2016
Faith Editor Emeritus
The University Players brought a literary classic to life this weekend in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The famous Oscar Wilde comedy asks how sincerity could be possible in Victorian London, where reputation and social obligation rule and authenticity is downright impolite.
Before the lights even dimmed, the set transported audiences to the universe of the social elite in Victorian London. A hand-painted mural reflecting popular art of the times framed the stage throughout the play, and the ornate lounges, carpets and frames on the stage set the scene for the quick exchange of witticisms over cucumber sandwiches and tea. Likewise, the costumes contributed to the feeling of having stumbled out of a time-machine into Victorian England.
Most impressive, of course, were the Players themselves, who never tripped over Wilde’s rapid-fire wit or swallowed any jokes. Senior James Pennington’s portrayal of the butler, Lane, set the tone for the play with his dry delivery of observations regarding the upper class and self-deprecating comments. The Players’ restraint let the humor and social commentary that characterize “The Importance of Being Earnest” blossom organically.
The actors never gave into the temptation to overact and, instead, let the more ridiculous scenes escalate in a natural, believable manner. Sophomore Conor Hurley’s sublime performance as Algernon exemplifies this. Throughout the entire action of the play, Hurley maintained the nonchalance that characterizes Algernon. He kept up with the character’s wit, delivering famous lines like, “If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated” and “the truth is rarely pure and never simple” with confidence but never the braggadocio that seriously risks undercutting the humor.
His presence and use of space saves him from ever being upstaged, even by senior Cillian Byrne’s uproarious drag performance of Lady Bracknell. The dynamic between all of the actors on stage at a given time was always complementary and never competitive.
Likewise, the chemistry between actors kept each scene captivating. Junior Dan Mauro’s performance as John “Jack” Worthington complemented Hurley’s Algernon without ever becoming upstaged by him. Jack’s frustration and affection for Algernon and Algernon’s bemusement at his friend are evident in the chemistry between Mauro and Hurley. They share the stage and the space between them so naturally that even the most absurd exchanges feel simultaneously believable and hilarious.
For example, in one heated argument Algernon voraciously stuffs muffins into his mouth, to his friend’s fury, until Jack exclaims, “How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can’t make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.” Algernon responds, frankly, “Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs.” The natural cadence of this conversation escalates convincingly into what may be Algernon’s most honest, authentic line: “I am eating muffins because I am unhappy.” The conviction and seriousness with which Hurley delivered this line emphasizes its hilarity.
Senior Megan Lasky sparkled in her final performance with the Players as Gwendolen. Like Hurley, Lasky’s confidence within the space of the stage emphasizes her character’s strength and self-awareness, which other productions of the play sometimes choose to disregard or downplay. For example, Gwendolen’s initial flirtation with Jack (who she believes is Earnest) and her response to his non-proposal –“I’m afriad you’ve had very little experience in how to propose”—and the subtle decision to push him back down on one knee when Lady Bracknell walks in on the proposal establish Gwendolen as a figure at least as witty as her male counterpart, and with plenty of personal agency.
Perhaps the most notable dynamic in the play, however, is the relationship between Gwendolen and Cecily, played by first-year Ali Basalyga who gave a stunning second production and first leading role. The pair’s initial encounter, in Cecily’s garden, opens with over the top affection. Each woman immediately insists that the other calls her by the first name, and explains that they like each other. That is, until they realize they have both become engaged to (the fictional) Earnest. As the veil of politeness fades, Lasky and Basalyga continue to complement each other’s movements, performing a sort of choreography over tea, sitting and standing in perfect unison. The pair maintains this unison for the remainder of the play, even as they confront their suitors.
Soon, the stage becomes a sort of mirror, in which Cecily and Gwendolen reflect their suitors perfectly, speaking and moving in perfect accord. Visually, this is as beautiful as it is comedic. The closing scene, which brings all of the actors on stage at once, stuns. The cast’s ability to illuminate each other’s strengths and account for any lapses makes a brilliant play about the struggle for authenticity in a strictly superficial world as natural and profound as it is hilarious.
Personally, I encourage everyone to see it this weekend and cannot imagine a more perfect final production of the year than “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
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