The importance of seeing Earnest

Capacity crowds filled Currier Ballroom for the Cap & Bells production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, shown Feb. 26-28. Because the fire safety code limited attendance to one hundred people per performance of the three-night run, demand was high to see director Christina Ronai’s adaptation of Wilde’s classic farce about mistaken identity, love, and human nature.

For her adaptation, Ronai ’00 chose a nontraditional locale for Wilde’s play. Instead of setting the scene in turn-of-the-century London, she gave the play an “American reading” with a modern-day, New York City setting. In the play’s program, Ronai wrote in a note to the audience, “The power of Wilde’s play is in its words and I believe that this makes period costume as well as a setting in London at the turn of the century unnecessary. What is important in the play has remained – the dialogue.”

For those unfamiliar with the convoluted plot of this consummate farce, the action is as follows: The Importance of Being Earnest opens in the living room of Algernon Moncrief. During the opening scene, Algernon attempts to return Ernest’s cigarette case, which Ernest had left at Algernon’s home. However, when Algernon opens the case, he finds an engraved message addressed to a man named Jack. The message is from a young woman named Cecily. When Algernon questions why Ernest owns a cigarette case with an inscription addressed to “Jack,” Ernest must admit that his name is Ernest when he is in the city, but in the country, he is known by his real name, Jack.

Jack has a ward named Cecily, who lives at his country estate. In order to escape his responsibilities to Cecily, Jack concocted a story about a carousing brother named Ernest whom he must visit frequently in the city.

When Gwendolyn and her mother arrive at Algernon’s apartment, Jack proposes to Gwendolyn. Elated, she accepts his proposal, as she has always wanted to marry a man named Ernest. Although Jack is wealthy, Gwendolyn’s mother does not approve of the marriage because Jack lacks the family connections she wants Gwendolyn’s husband to have. Scene one ends with the fate of Gwendolyn and Jack’s marriage in question.

Scene two opens at the country estate of Jack Worthy. Algernon arrives claiming to be Ernest, Jack’s brother. Within a few minutes Cecily and Algernon fall in love. Algernon proposes marriage. Elated, Cecily agrees, as she has always wanted to marry a man named Ernest. Gwendolyn also arrives at the country estate. She and Cecily argue because they believe they are both engaged to the same man, Ernest Worthy. Angry, Gwendolyn and Cecily agree to have nothing more to do with Ernest. All ends happily however after the display of a handbag, the discussion of a three-volume novel, and the consultation of some military records.

Wilde’s farce, as Ronai described, “laughs at convention and exposes its absurdity” through both intricate dialogue and a preposterous story line. Overall, the cast of The Importance of Being Earnest handled the complicated dialogue with finesse. Occasionally, lines were spoken too quickly, and the words seemed forced, as if accuracy in execution was more important than the emotions behind the words. However, with a dialogue as complex as Wilde’s, such occurrences can be overlooked.

The entire cast of Earnest was extremely strong. Both Annemarie Cancienne ’98, as the snooty Lady Bracknell, and Jennifer Eames ’01, as Cecily, played their roles deftly. The effectiveness of these protrayals was complemented by the stellar performance of Craig DiFolco ’98 in the role Algernon Moncrief. DiFolco managed both the intricacies of Wilde’s dialogue and created a believable “Bunburying” Algernon who kept the audience laughing throughout.

For The Importance of Being Earnest, the stage was set up at one end of the Currier ballroom. About a quarter of the chairs in the house were set upon the ground. The remaining chairs were arranged on an unsloped, raised platform. This arrangement allowed for good viewing if an attendee was sitting in the first four rows of chairs, but those in the middle rows had to crane their necks to see. For the audience members in the last few rows, the line of sight to the stage was completely impaired. Of Wilde’s work, Ronai wrote, “It is what is said that entertains us.” For the audiences who saw the play in Currier, it was fortunate that this is true. According to Lauren Siegel, stage manager, a miscommunication with Buildings and Grounds led to the problem with seating.

The audience members sitting in the first three or four rows of chairs in Currier would probably agree that this past weekend they saw an excellent performance of The Importance of Being Earnest. It is a shame that the people sitting behind them did not have the same experience at the play, for while there is importance in being earnest, there is also importance in seeing Ernest.

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