The Importance of Being Earnest: Physicality limits the actors and the plays subtlety vanishes

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

Categories: Professional Theatre

Published on: October 26, 2014 for the Ottawa Citizen.

Natasha Greenblatt and Alex McCooeye star in The Importance of Being Earnest at the NAC.

Natasha Greenblatt and Alex McCooeye star in The Importance of Being Earnest at the NAC. Photo: Andree Lanthier

A food fight. A dogpile. People treating an elegant sofa with all the respect of Tom Cruise. Is it a play mounted in the living room by your children and their young pals? No, it’s Oscar’s Wilde’s sophisticated gem The Importance of Being Earnest under the direction of Ted Dykstra and starring NAC English Theatre’s possibly embarrassed 2014-15 Ensemble.

Seeking a fresh take on a much-seen play, Dykstra has turned to farcical physicality to illustrate Wilde’s pricking of superficiality, social conventions and other Victorian foibles. Problem is, that physicality, especially the near-slapstick variety often employed here, is meant to underscore the surface existence that is one of Wilde’s bugbears but instead draws so much attention to itself and so limits the actors that the playwright’s intentions and subtlety vanish in the shuffle.

That’s clear from the outset when we’re introduced to those two young gents, the perpetually amused Algernon (Alex McCooeye) and his combative friend Jack (Christopher Morris). Being moneyed, they have little to do except eat, dress well, and shuttle between their city and country addresses. So why do these well-bred fellows have to bellow at the top of their lungs when bantering in Algernon’s tony London flat (Patrick Clark’s stylish sets and costumes are among the few admirable elements of the production)? Did Dykstra think that Ottawa audiences, expert at shutting out the political blather that daily surrounds us, have also gone deaf?

Overreliance on physicality informs other parts of the production. Algernon and Jack at one point engage in a literal food fight, a silly riff on the serious role that food – a metaphor for many things Victorian, from the hunger of suppressed sexuality to the sugar coating of vicious upper-crust social exchanges – plays in the story. Wilde is fully capable of creating his own, mannered food skirmishes as when the loves of Algernon and Jack’s lives, Cecily (the pleasing Natasha Greenblatt) and Gwendolen (a frequently disengaged Amy Matysio), exchange barbs with each other over highly sugared tea and cake. Does a metaphor really need to be turned into a physical act for us to get the point?

Maybe the obviousness that permeates the production – Algernon’s mugging for the audience, an uncalled-for dogpile involving the four young lovers, people catapulting onto sofas and bounding over ottomans — left Karen Robinson dazed and confused, but her portrait of the formidable Lady Bracknell, one of Wilde’s greatest creations, is underwhelming. This grande dame of the social scene, mother of Gwendolen and aunt of Algernon speaks as though she’d just come from an elocution class, though surely any instructor would have suggested she not regularly ascend into that grating upper register when making a point.

And merely dropping her voice in disbelief when, upon discovering that Jack, who’s proposed to Gwendolen, was discovered as an infant in a handbag at Victoria Station, doesn’t do justice to one of the play’s classic moments, namely Lady Bracknell’s stunned words: “Found? … (in) a handbag?”

Elsewhere, Lois Anderson gives us an amusing Miss Prism, the prissy but lusting teacher hired by Jack for his ward Cecily. Andrew Moodie is Rev. Canon Chasuble, whose job includes re-baptizing both Algernon and Jack as “Ernest” because that name was what Cecily and Gwendolen thought the men were called, and the two young ladies, paragons of superficiality, were attracted by the name rather than the gents themselves. Alas, Moodie seems completely at sea as to who his character is.

David Warburton and Herbie Barnes make a convincing Merriman and Lane, butlers respectively of Jack and Algernon.

In the end, the production, albeit not intentionally, lives up to Algernon’s words early in the play: “It isn’t easy to be anything nowadays.”

The Importance of Being Earnest continues until Nov. 8. Tickets: NAC box office, 1-888-991-2787, ticketmaster.ca


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