The audience that gathered last Thursday evening to see “The Importance of Being Earnest” filled the Perseverance Theatre lobby and spilled outside, delaying entrance to those who arrived a little after 7 p.m. for the 7:30 p.m. curtain. The buzz sparked by people who had already seen the show in its first week quickly ran through the waiting crowd, and we were soon making more noise than the tavern party celebrating St. Patrick’s Day across the street. I skeptically listened to repeat viewers telling strangers, “It’s a great show! You’ll love it!”
When I stepped into the warm lobby, the pink-rosebuds-and-twirled-ribbon topiary on the ticket counter made me wonder, “What does this suggest about the show I am about to see?” As the sold-out audience found seats, the butler came on stage to prepare the drawing room for company. The deliciously decorated drawing room easily transports viewers to Victorian England. Set designer Art Rotch paid attention to details: multiple Oriental carpets, dark wood-paneled walls topped by crown molding, a burgundy brocade-covered couch with carved feet, art framed in gold filigree, gold tassels on the curtains. The white-gloved servant in the fitted black waistcoat carries in the silver tea set and the parody party begins.
“The Importance of Being Earnest,” Wilde’s last play, debuted in London in 1895. It is not necessarily dated. In many ways it is a like a Seinfeld episode — a show about nothing, a story about people pursuing love, a comedy in which characters create false identities to escape social obligations. Perseverance’s production hits a fast tempo from the very beginning, eliminating any time to ponder the subtext of Oscar Wilde’s attack on Victorian manners and the institution of marriage.
Director Carolyn Howarth moves characters well, expertly setting up the verbal battles between them, and putting distance between the two momentary antagonists, allowing the audience to see the tells-it-all facial expressions. Once the two Ernests have captured the hearts of their women, the couples move together and move apart like magnets. When the women learn their loves have non-musical names, the distance between the women and men is huge. When the name issues are resolved, the magnetism returns and the men are once again on the arms of their women. Howarth found creative ways to use the very small acting space in front of the Act II countryside estate, keeping pictures balanced and interesting.
Wilde’s words can be deadly, his plays long and languid in the hands of amateurs. Not so at Perseverance. Throughout the evening Flordelino Lagundino in the role of Algernon playfully delivers dialogue, making it sound natural. Lagundino lives in the world of the play, draping himself in five different ways on the fainting couch, stuffing muffins into his mouth, turning the aristocratic mansion and country house patio into playgrounds. His time-period posture and poses anchor his highly entertaining, energetic performance. Knowing how and when to give and take on stage is an art he has mastered.
Joining him with very strong performances are Daniel Harray as Jack and Christina Apathy as Gwendolen. Their seemingly two-minute-long-blowing-kisses goodbye moment is hilarious. Period plays require a palette of specific choices physically and verbally that not all of this company has achieved yet. Older actors in youthful roles was slightly off-putting, but as the story played out, quickly forgotten. The plot is easy to follow, character relationships clearly established, and most of the comedy provided by Wilde’s words is discovered and honestly offered to the audience.
The costumes and hats designed by Meg Zeder are exquisite — layered, tailored and detailed. The Rev. Canon Chasuble’s watch fob has a cross on it. Gwendolyn’s purses match her dresses and carry out the sparkle with beaded trim on the bottom. Lady Bracknell’s hats are characters in themselves, with huge feathers and contrasting colored fabrics. One has a bird’s head and body shaped so the bird’s eyes glare down from the brim at whomever Lady Bracknell is accosting. When Jack enters in mourning, his costume totally tells you so: two black arm bands, a huge black bow on his top hat, dark glasses and grayish gloves. No details are ignored. It’s refreshing and fun to watch a fully realized production.
Also entertaining is the set change, done smoothly and efficiently by a crew in period costume. The lushly furnished drawing room disappears, piece-by-piece; a wall spins, and the audience is transported to the English countryside.
So what does the rose-and-ribbon topiary in the lobby suggest? There are repeated uses of roses and ribbons and natural shapes cut up into unnatural but symmetrical forms in this Oscar Wilde play. It feels good to laugh at people’s attempts to fake it, to fit in and to find love, real or not. I highly recommend Perseverance’s production.
Performances continue on Thursday through Sunday evenings through April 10.