Wilde nights as Festival Theatre corrals Earnest

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By Doug Deuchler

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I'd forgotten what great fun Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest can be when it's performed well.  Oak Park Festival Theatre's new production of the 1895 comedy classic is a treasure, easily accessible for modern audiences while lampooning Late Victorian society where wealth and appearances were all that mattered. 

Director Kevin Theis, who often stars in Festival productions, this time is the director.  Theis keeps things moving swiftly along.  His top-notch ensemble seems to be having as much fun as the audience.   

The casting is impeccable.   There is very little logic that can be applied to the characters' actions.  But it all works uproariously because of the uniformly skillful actors and their comic pacing.

The plot focuses on people who know nothing about love and then hurtling headlong into it. Two well-off young dandies create fake identities and use the same pseudonym, Earnest, in order to pursue their intended love interests and other on-the-sly activities.

Upper-crust playboy Algernon Moncrieff (Jude Willis) is a rude, snotty brat but he's also charming and full of self-confidence.  Many of the playwright's contemporaries thought that this vain, frivolous character was Wilde's stand-in for himself.  Algernon's in love with dim-witted Cecily (Brooke Hebert) who seems drawn to reckless bad boys.

His rather stuffy pal, mild-mannered Jack Worthing (John Crosthwaite), is smitten with his friend Algernon's cousin, the charmingly superficial Gwendolyn Fairfax.   We also learn that Jack's background is somewhat blurry, as he was accidentally abandoned as a baby.

The playful sparring of Algernon and Jack is the core relationship of the show.  Willis and Crosthwaite play off each other well.

It seems the 2 heroines, Gwendolyn and Cecily, are both determined to marry men named Earnest.

In the 2nd act Cecily manages to out-coquette Gwendolyn. 

Before long, as you might imagine, their duplicitous living catches up with the two eligible bachelors.      

Belinda Bremmer is absolutely wonderful as overbearing, conniving Lady Bracknell.  She deliciously dispatches some of the best lines Wilde ever wrote.  She's a formidable presence as she sweeps into the room:  "I hope you are behaving very well" is her hello to her nephew Algernon and his pal Jack.  Upon hearing that Jack intends to wed her daughter Gwendolyn, Lady Bracknell grills him ruthlessly.  She would never approve of her marrying a man of such uncertain parentage. But when she learns Jack smokes she comments:  "I am glad to hear it.  A man should always have an occupation of some kind."  

Marriage is satirized as a cold-eyed business arrangement.

The one-liners and put-downs are in plentiful supply.   There is a great deal of very witty, rapid-fire dialogue.

Although set in drawing rooms, the show plays nicely in lush, wooded Austin Gardens, just a half block north of Downtown Oak Park.   Jacqueline and Richard Penrod designed a simple yet opulent set that accommodates several locations.   Stagehands dressed as Victorian maids and butlers do all the scene shifts briskly and efficiently.  

The romance between Cicely's straight-laced governess, Miss Prism (Lynda Shadrake) and Reverend Chasuble (Mark Richard), an upstanding local clergyman, adds a delightful little subplot.  

Brian Rooney and Jackson McLaughlin play two funny servants.

The exquisite costumes by Rachel Sypniewski, which fit the late 19th Century period perfectly, are a gorgeous feast for the eyes.  

The play originally had 3 acts.   This production takes one intermission between Acts 1 and 2.  Where the third break for a scene change would occur, the actors simply move forward, lit with a spotlight, while behind them the servants quickly change the furnishings for the final episode.  This works well.

Despite its razor-sharp wit, critics of the original 1895 production called the comedy "overly frivolous," and disparaged its "lack of substance." But there's no denying it's a wicked, brilliant comic masterpiece, a crowd-pleaser that satirizes Late Victorian hypocrisy while providing plenty of laugh-out-loud hilarity.  Yes, it's an elite world of arrogant aristocrats, cucumber sandwiches and servants wearing white gloves.  But this slick Oak Park Festival Theatre production breathes new life into Wilde's 120-year-old social satire while often causing us to contemplate the shallowness and superficiality within our own world today.  

This witty, stylish frolic in London high society is the second production in the company's 40th season, following their successful 1920s gangland spin on Hamlet.   This show is an elegant confection that was quite well-received on opening night. 

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was London's most popular playwright and one of the best-known personalities of his day.   Early in the run of this comedy, however, he was convicted of "gross indecency" and was imprisoned for two years of hard labor for being actively homosexual. The Importance of Being Earnest was to be his last play.  When Wilde emerged from prison he was a broken, destitute man who died at 45.

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