Chicago Theatre Review
A Full Frontal Satire of Society
The Importance of Being Earnest – Shaw Chicago Theatre Company
Can there be a more exquisite comedy in the English language? Populated by some of literature’s most delightfully self-absorbed characters, Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners absolutely drips with delicious language and pompous attitude. In Robert Scogin’s wise and skillfully directed chamber production, Wilde’s classic is presented with style and wit. The play’s broad humor, which falls naturally from the tongues of these nine talented actors, paints a satirical portrait of the Victorian upper class.
Unlike most theatrical companies, ShawChicago is known for its simplicity of presentation. All productions are presented readers theatre style. Wearing only a suggestion of costuming, Mr. Scogin’s talented cast all sit on stage, in full view of the audience, awaiting their characters’ entrances. To enter a scene, an actor carries his script and takes his place at various podiums, which are line the downstage area. He then delivers his lines directly to the audience. In this manner, we miss nothing; all of the playwright’s words, every subtle facial expression and nuance provided by the actor, is played full front. In this way the theatergoer becomes an acting partner for each Thespian. The effect is two-fold: the audience focuses primarily upon the music and message behind playwright’s words as the play turns into a more intimate experience.
Also known for his poetry, such as “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a Gothic novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey, as well as his children’s tales compiled in The Happy Prince and Other Stories, Oscar Wilde is best remembered for his plays. Among them are “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” “A Woman of No Importance,” “Salome” and “An Ideal Husband.” However, the playwright’s most often-produced, best-loved theatrical work is this comedy. Premiering in London on Valentine’s Day in 1895, “…Earnest” would become Wilde’s most famous work of art. Given this sparkling presentation at ShawChicago, audiences will understand why.
Oscar Wilde said of his art “that we should treat all trivial things in life very seriously, and all serious things in life with a sincere and studied triviality.” This quotation is Mr. Scogin’s cue for directing his production. His concert reading crackles with wit and features some comically inspired staging, while always featuring the playwright’s words and language front and center. His cast is sensational. Gary Alexander (who resembles a young David Hyde Pierce) was born to play Algernon. His posture, mannerisms and subtle vocal acrobatics must be what Oscar Wilde imagined when writing this role. Christian Gray is a stylishly accomplished and believably pernickety Jack Worthing. His delightful bantering with Mr. Alexander’s Algernon, his hopeless mooning and flirtation with Gwendolyn (played to prim perfection by the actor’s lovely wife, Lydia Berger Gray) and his head-to-head encounters with the dowager queen, Lady Bracknell, give us a talented artist basking in his prime.
Mary Michell slides up and down the vocal scale creating an audibly remarkable Lady Bracknell. She’s both a frightening force to be reckoned with while turning in one of this season’s funniest performances. Leslie Anne Handelman is everything Jack Worthing’s ward should be. As Cecily, the actress is pretty, radiates a penchant for romance and hungers for a bit of adventure. Knowing how to manipulate everyone around her, she isn’t about to be overshadowed or threatened by anybody, least of all Gwendolyn. The tea party scene between Ms. Gray and Ms. Handelman stands out as one of the highlights of this production. Jack Hickey’s hilarious, deadpan butler, Lane, Jonathan Nichols’ agitated, put-upon butler Merriman, Camilla Hawk’s genteel governess Miss Prism and Skip Lundby’s befuddled Rev Canon Chasuble complete this talented cast.
Audiences who’ve never experienced this wonderfully clever, absolutely alluring play have a real treat in store. Playgoers already familiar with Oscar Wilde’s droll, sidesplitting comedy of manners will rediscover both the playwright’s sparkling wit and his extraordinary talent with words, because Robert Scogin’s production focuses on just that. Elegantly presented by a very talented ensemble of actors, this sparkling jewel of a production, playing for only a limited time, is the product of one of Chicago’s finest theatre companies, now celebrating its 20th season. This polished gem of a production shines brightly and radiates with style. And as Oscar Wilde wrote, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 7-March 2 by ShawChicago Theatre Company at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-587-7390 or by going to www.shawchicago.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.