Timeless ‘Earnest’ still relevant, surprising

Brandon Burk directs Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners “The Importance of Being Earnest” for Off-Strip Productions at the Onyx Theatre with as light a touch as the delicate crustless cucumber sandwiches that Algernon Moncrieff scarfs down while awaiting his guests in the opening scene. Burk skips the hoary Masterpiece Theatre treatment of this classic and instead surprises his audience with a play with moral irreverence as surprising and funny to today’s audience as it must have been when first performed in London.

The plot of this comedy of errors twists around the mix-up of two friends, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, neither of whom is named Ernest, but both who become engaged to young ladies for whom that name stands for all that is dependable in a husband and who refuse to marry any mere Jack or Algernon. Jack’s fiancé Gwendolen tells him, “My ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.” Similarly, Algernon’s love Cecily tells him, “I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest.”

The serious humor in the play resides in the characters’ reversal of mores —both Algernon and Jack must deceive Gwendolen and Cecily into believing that each is Ernest, just the opposite of the earnestness that the two ladies say they want in their future husbands.

Wilde’s dialogue contains a host of ironic aphorisms that when earnestly recited convey just the opposite of their literal meaning. For example, Jack swears to Gwendolen, “It is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?” To which Gwendolen sincerely replies, “I can. For I feel that you are sure to change.” Wilde’s characters must act oppositely to society’s expected morality to themselves be earnest.

Edgar Nunez and Alex Olson are perfectly balanced leads. Nunez’s Algernon presides over the play as Wilde’s alter ego, the perfect urbane sophisticate both in looks and manner. When Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell calls his friend Jack’s class status into question and forbids him to marry her daughter Gwendolen, Olson as the humorous rake Jack reveals a touching vulnerability and angst.

Abby Dandy and Tara Lynn Golding are both delightfully charming as Gwendolen and Cecily. Victorian heroines can be simpering, but these two are always very real women and make sense even in their nonsense.

Barbara King is magnificent as Lady Bracknell, proving once again that she is one of our community’s finest actors.

Sandy Stein, an Oscar Wilde look-a-like, is very funny as Lane, Algernon’s inebriated manservant. Stephen Sisson makes a hilariously pedantic Reverend Chasuble.

Special mention must be made of costumer Isaias Hiram Urrabazo’s ravishing Victorian costumes, which were beautiful even while being preposterous.

Wilde was imprisoned shortly after “The Importance of Being Earnest” opened in 1895. The importance of Wilde’s message, that to be morally true to ourselves we must sometimes appear immoral to society, makes this satire on Victorian manners as relevant today as when first presented.

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