There is something in the name Oscar Wilde that seems to inspire absolute confidence. That something is the cutting social insight that he, with brilliant and dramatic wit, presents upon the stage – particularly in his last and arguably most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest. Coupled with an experienced and passionate director, Myrna Wyatt Selkirk, and talented actors, the production of Wilde’s masterpiece currently playing at McGill’s Moyse Hall leaves its audience enormously – and earnestly – entertained.
The wicked wit of Wilde possesses a remarkable duality. The Importance of Being Earnest unfolds as a lively and fun comedy, one of the qualities that initially drew Selkirk to it, while simultaneously hitting many of society’s faults hard on the head. While Wilde was particularly disgusted by the superficiality and constraints of his own late nineteenth century society, the dialogue he uses to expose the questionable morality of those holding status in high regard is, unfortunately, still very relevant today.
Jack “Ernest” Worthing, played by Nicolae Rusan, and Algernon “Bunbury” Moncrieff, played by Brian Beckett, both create alternate identities to gain freedom from their constrained roles in society. While Jack, who is from the country, poses as his own “brother Ernest” in the city, he falls in love with the cosmopolitan socialite Gwendolyn Fairfax, who is nearly inseparable from her boisterous and even more pretentious mother, Lady Bracknell. When Algernon, Gwendolyn’s cousin and Jack’s city friend, discovers Ernest’s true identity, he goes to the country in the guise of “Jack’s brother Ernest” to investigate what Jack’s true life is like. There he finds Cecily Cardew, Jack’s beautiful, young ward, and they quickly take a liking to each other. When Gwendolyn comes to the country in search of Ernest, however, both men’s guises begin to unravel.
“I found it interesting during the rehearsal process to discover how physically bold the show wanted to be,” says Selkirk. Beckett, in the role of Algernon, is brilliantly skilled at using this bold physicality to its full comedic potential, remaining remarkably believable within the world of the play while receiving a great laugh with even the slightest gesture. When Rusan as Ernest joins him on stage he’s quite a contrast to the fluid Algernon, being more brittle and the most constrained character physically throughout the play. “This was a very purposeful choice,” explains Selkirk. “In many ways, Jack is the other, the outsider, the person trying to fit in.” Rusan carries out this interpretation very well. Of uncertain origin, Jack manages to exist within this highly smug, upper-class society, but he retains a degree of self-consciousness. This is evident, Selkirk says, in “the terrible amount of time he spends getting dressed, for example.”
Joy Ross-Jones does an excellent job portraying the lively Cecily, and when the curtain lifts on her in the second act, the beautiful picture revealed makes us realize that she is in fact Algernon’s real partner in crime, not Jack. Ross-Jones matches Beckett’s presence and whimsical desire to shape her character like an author creates a character in a book. This underlying motif of inventiveness and artistry is beautifully reflected in the set and costumes alike. The costumes are wonderfully detailed and decadent, and the set frames the stage in such a way that a painting emerges with each pause in movement.
Jessica B. Hill is flawless as the sophisticated, pretentious, and utterly superficial Gwendolyn, and Elana Dunkelman has a magnificent ability to coolly command the entire stage as the even more artificial, pompous, and hilarious Lady Bracknell. All characters in Wilde’s play have a hand in producing the comedy, including the butlers and the fidgety Reverend Chasuble played by Fraser Dickson. With great direction, performances, production, and playwriting, this production of The Importance of Being Earnest is a feast for the eyes, ears, and mind.
The Importance of Being Earnest is being performed from November 27 to 29 in Moyse Hall in the Arts Building. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are $5 for students and seniors, and $10 for adults.