The double entendre of Oscar Wilde’s title “The Importance of Being Earnest” deftly sends up the conventions and snobbery of the final years of the Victorian Era when the British Empire was at its height.
An outsider by birth, the Irishman Wilde was nevertheless accepted by the British upper class. They loved his wit, his daring, his immaculate turns of phrase and his finger-in-the-eye of all that was proper. They loved him even when they were laughing about themselves.
In “Earnest,” Wilde’s three-delicate-act farce, words are everything — tossed about brilliantly, casually and with exquisite finesse. They are delicious, devilish and delectable — a feast for those for whom the subtlety of language is a venerated lost art.
Idyllwild Arts presents “Earnest” in an intimate setting, at Rush Hall’s black box theater. It is a perfect setting for the drawing-room intimacy of “Earnest,” where every word, the smallest gesture, expression, the hem in every garment and the twirl of every skirt are only a few feet from audience members.
And what will be astonishing for the audience is the skill with which these young actors perform and understand the period conventions of the late 1800s. As IA Academy senior Morgan Wheeler, who plays John (Jack) Worthing, noted, “Yes, these characters are wealthy, and upper class but they are still people, and you need to play them as real people.” As Drama Chair and Director J. Barrett Cooper observed, “We have to care about them. Yes, it is the language, but these characters must also be authentic human beings.”
The period in which the piece is set also requires the cast to perform in a specific acting style — small, not expansive gestures, acting with the eyes and the smallest inflections in the voice and a very different physicality, especially for the women. Said Reynolds Sullivan who plays Cecily Cardew, “Performing the play in the time period in which it is set requires specific behavior — how do you cross your legs, women don’t use the backs of chairs but sit poised on the front, how do you stand and walk?”
Caroline Quigley, who plays Gwendolyn Fairfax, agreed, “The physicality of the face is so important, gestures are small and restrained, and so much of the acting is done with the eyes.”
Jaclyn Miller, who plays the pivotal role of Lady Augusta Bracknell, spoke about the actual constraints period costumes place on the actors. “All the women are wearing corsets,” she said. “I had never worn a corset. I had to learn to breathe differently and place my character’s voice in the right register.”
For anyone who has not seen “Earnest,” it has all the turns of classical farce, surprises, unexpected reverses, revelations and language that are exquisitely crafted and fabulously funny. “Wilde wastes not one word,” said Cooper. “I’ve acted in the play twice, am now directing it, and I am still finding new subtleties in the script — a word or expression introduced by one character that is later repeated by another in a different way.”
Senior Lincoln Belford, often seen in the past as a musical comedy lead, is a supporting but critically important player in “Earnest,” the Rev. Canon Chausable, D.D. Said Cooper, “Linc is an example of how to work professionally. He came in prepared and made choices from the beginning. It is what ensemble acting is all about.”
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is directed by Cooper, with set design by senior Ahmet Buyukcinar, costume design by Minnie Christine Walters, light and sound design by Todd Carpenter and stage management by senior Madeline Bernstein. James Jones plays Algernon Moncreif, Kristen Clarke plays Miss Prism, and Rob Taylor and Narushi Fukuda round out the nine-member cast. The time is 1895 and the action takes place in Algernon’s flat in London and at Worthing’s manor house in the English countryside.
“Earnest” opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11, and plays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13. Admission is free to the public, seats are not reserved and seating is limited.
For more about Idyllwild Arts Academy, see www.idyllwildarts.org.