Last Tuesday, my dear friend P.M Gower surprised me with two tickets to see Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” at San Diego’s Cygnet Theatre. I have a weakness for the works of Mr. Wilde, and am an avid student of both his personal and literary history, so how could I refuse?
I’m very fond of the theatre; it’s one of the few places in this world where I can go without being gawked at. When wandering eyes do traverse in my direction, rather than being jeered at I am awarded accolades for my avant-garde “look”. Truly, theatre folk are my kind of people.
The Cygnet Theatre of Old Towne California is in and of itself a splendour. Blown glass lanterns dangle from the ceilings, casting a pale golden glow over the house. The rubicund velvet of the seats seems so ingratiating, pleading with you, like an old friend, to take a seat, and forget the worries of the day.
The performance of “Earnest” is actually part of a rotating repertory also featuring Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” (which I originally misread as Transvestites.) It’s an error, which really isn’t so out of line considering there have been performances of “Earnest” by all male casts. Indeed, Geoffrey Rush, who played Barbosa in “Pirate’s Of The Caribbean” won acclaim for his portrayal of Lady Bracknell with The Melbourne Theatre Company.
While the cast of the Cygnet’s production features both sexes, the actors are assigned the lofty task of performing two plays in this run, alternating back and forth between. It is truly is a credit to their skills. I have yet to see Travesties, but I hope to, as the performance of “Earnest” was profoundly inspiring.
I was fortunate enough to have seats in the first row. This afforded me the opportunity to truly appreciate every cocked eyebrow and smirk the actors initiated. The play opens with Manny Fernandes as Lane, the stoic yet exasperated butler to one Algernon Montcreif. Though he doesn’t speak for the first few moments, we are immediately aware of Lane’s fastidiousness, and an ever-mounting vexation, exquisitely articulated through his meticulous setting of the morning’s tea.
We soon see the source of his frustrations, as Algernon Montcreif bounces on to the stage. Algernon, given a deliciously lively humour by the gifted Jordan Miller, is expecting a visit from his aunt Lady Bracknell (Linda Libby) and her daughter Gwendolen (Jacque Wilke).
The fun begins when his long-suffering friend Earnest Worthing (Brian Mackey) enters. Mackey does a wonderful job of lying bare Earnest’s tremulous hold on what we are first lead to believe is a simplistic, mundane life. You see, Earnest is in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen. It is his intention to propose.
Algernon finds the prospect utterly boring, and instead decides to delve into an unexplored bit of Earnest’s past he’s stumbled upon via Mr. Worthing’s misplaced cigarette case. The case has been engraved with the words:
“From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.”
We soon learn that dear uncle Jack is in fact Mr. Earnest Worthing. Earnest has been leading a double life, living as Jack in the country and Earnest in the city. Bored by the slow pace of his rural existence, Jack has invented a brother for himself, Earnest, who is constantly getting in scrapes. The diligent, responsible brother he is, Jack finds himself forced to travel into the city often, and resolve whatever problem Earnest has gotten himself into. Once there however, he takes on the name Earnest himself, freeing him from the binds of his other life. He vows that upon his engagement to Gwendolen, he’ll stop this nonsense and finally destroy his fictious brother.
Little Cecily (Rachel Vanwormer), we learn is quite real. She is Jack’s exceptionally attractive, 18 year old ward and absolutely infatuated with wicked Earnest. Algernon is delighted to discover his friend is so subversive. He’s dying to dig further into this wriggling nest of lies, but is interrupted by the arrival of Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen.
Linda Libby is uproarious as the staunch, self-important Lady Bracknell. She portrays the character as a woman so lost to her own hubris that she’s become a creature totally foreign to the reality all other human beings exist within. I’ve always adored Lady Bracknell, and Libby’s performance was an inexorable thrill for me. Though I know the script by heart, whenever she took the stage, I hung on her every word as if it was new and only just now being unveiled to me.
Finding a moment alone with Gwendolen, Earnest/Jack makes his charmingly awkward proposal. Jacque Wilke’s bubbly, near delirious Gwendolen whole-heartedly accepts. In a delighted tizzy, she declares that it has always been her fondest wish to marry a man named Earnest. The news startles her fiancé, as Earnest is the very character he intended to rid himself of. Here begins the trouble.
Lady Bracknell, upon learning of the proposal is less than pleased. She sets herself to the task of interrogating “Earnest” to discover just what sort of man might be joining her family. Through her many questions it is revealed that Earnest is a found child. He began life as an abandoned babe; he has no knowledge of his family lineage. This news greatly disturbs the Lady Bracknell, who insists that she cannot allow the marriage to proceed unless Earnest can produce one or both of his parents. It is of course an impossible task. Earnest/Jack is crestfallen.
To make matters worse, Algernon has devised a plan so that he might meet “Little Cecily.” He decides to infiltrate Jack Worthing’s bucolic life under the assumed guise of his miscreant brother, Earnest. He is received with great enthral by the comely Cecily, who Rachel Vanwormer plays gloriously as a teenager, treading the fine line between infatuation and outright lunacy.
Bored with her daily studies, delivered to her by the enchantingly befuddled Miss Prism (Maggie Carney), Cecily has ascended to a world inside her own head. Here, she and uncle Jack’s wicked brother Earnest have enjoyed a stormy engagement. She’s struggled with her love for him, despite of all his dastardly deeds, and has even gone so far as to fashion letters to from Ernest to herself. She’s filled her diary with these fantasies and now, presented with a vessel for her delusions, she is utterly consumed by her quixotic ardour. Algernon is all too happy to reap the benefits.
It would be an understatement to the point of negligence to simply tell you that chaos ensues. However, I feel the rest of the story is best enjoyed from the lush seats of the Cygnet theatre if you’re in the San Diego area.
While their parts may be smaller, it would be a travesty not to mention the magnificent performances given by David Cochran Heath as the sweetly love addled Dr. Chasuble and Maggie Carney as Miss Prism. While these characters are less tangled in the farce than the others, they are the hinge pins on which this frothy mayhem rests, especially Miss Prism as you’ll understand if you see the play.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” runs September 18th through October 27th. Its sister play, Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” runs September 19th through the 27th. To purchase tickets please visit The Cygnet Theatre’s website http://www.cygnettheatre.com/