Please note: This production opens amid an ongoing investigation into sexual harrassment claims against Michael Halberstam at Writers Theatre. The internal probe has not yet been resolved.
There exists in the theatre world a misguided notion that any script with elevated language, be it Shakespeare, Marlowe, or even Wilde, need be approached in one of two ways: as over the top as possible, with actors shouting and leaping about to educate us poor, illiterate audience members; or, alternatively, as blandly as possible, with actors making little to no choice in “allegiance” to the text itself. I’m not sure what theatrical god imposed this horrible commandment, but it’s one that many a production has suffered via following.
It’s for this reason that I felt so incredibly refreshed after seeing Writer’s Theatre's interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s scathing social satire, The Importance of Being Earnest. After overcoming a battle with lackluster energy in the first act, the cast finds their stride and manages to make distinct acting choices without doing a disservice to Wilde’s witty words. Coupled with Mara Blumenfeld’s delightful costume design, this well-rounded production is one well-worth seeing.
Steve Haggard takes on the most daunting role as the charmingly infuriating Algernon Moncrieff (Algie) and manages to make him as lovable as the script requires, and Alex Goodrich’s more serious John Worthing provides the perfect counterpart to Algie’s antics. Rebecca Hurd and Jennifer Latimore offer similar complimentary performances, with Hurd enhancing Cecily Cardew’s bumbling and accident prone nature and Latimore highlighting Gwendolen Fairfax’s strict adherence to class. Perhaps most noteworthy, though, is Shannon Cochran’s interpretation of Lady Bracknell. In a role constantly overdone to the extreme, Cochran’s Bracknell finds the humor in her adherence to not play the humor, an acting choice which made the role all the more funny.
For all the leading cast’s triumphs, though, there are the supporting cast’s missteps. Anita Chandwaney’s Miss Prism seems out of place in her caricature-esque undertaking, and Ross Lehman’s commitment to playing an extremely inebriated butler is funny at first but quickly becomes distracting as he stumbles around in the background of scenes.
Yet, all in all, this production succeeds where so many others have failed because it presents Wilde’s satircal play sincerely and seriously (which, ironically, may be two of Wilde’s least favorite traits). Props to Writer’s Theatre for recognizing the vital importance of playing this script earnestly.
Review by Emily Schmidt
The Importance of Being Earnest continues at Writers Theatre through Dec 23. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.