You know it’s going to be a great show when someone gets laughs even before they walk onstage.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” opens with Jake Murphy, as Algernon, playing the piano offstage. (I use the verb “playing” loosely. Very loosely.)
He’s banging around and singing along, making sounds more suited to an organ’s pipes or an ill cow.
From the long-suffering look on the face of his manservant, Lane (a very circumspect Seth Robert Patterson), you can tell this isn’t the first time.
“I don’t play accurately — anyone can play accurately — but I play with wonderful expression,” Algernon declares with the self-confidence of one who never doubts himself.
For Algernon, life is a lark, and anything and everything is grounds for amusement.
And so begins Florida Repertory Theatre’s production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which tickles your funny bones from its opening scene and doesn’t let up.
My face literally ached from laughing and smiling so much during the first act alone.
But seeing this show is well worth risking laugh lines.
This is one you don’t want to miss; the venue added a week to its run even before opening night, so you have until March 11 to see this gem, unless they extend it yet again. And with something this good, they may well have to.
This classic comedy is set in 1895, but the production is fresh, fast-paced and appropriately flippant.
For those who’ve never seen this show, here’s the premise: two bachelor friends, Algernon (Mr. Murphy) and Jack (Max Roll), meet in London. Jack is in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolyn (Talley Gale), and plans to propose, though her mother, Lady Bracknell (Carol Halstead) disapproves.
Jack lives a double life. When he wants to leave the countryside and go into town, he claims he’s visiting his imaginary ne’er do well brother, Ernest. And when Algernon wants to wiggle out of his social obligations, he uses an ill but imaginary friend, Bunbury, as an excuse.
Algernon goes to Jack’s home in the country, where Jack’s butler, Merriman (Chase Brackett) barely tolerates the others’ antics, but manages to keep a deadpan, polite demeanor. Algernon falls for Jack’s ward, the simple-minded Cecily (Ella Olesen). Meanwhile, Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism (Jan Neuberger) is enjoying a flirtation with the local pastor, Rev. Chasuble (David Breitbarth), who is obviously smitten with her, in a chaste kind of way.
Jack kills off his imaginary brother, telling everyone Earnest has died, but Algernon, uninvited, appears, claiming to be the very same brother. And very alive.
And though neither one is named Ernest, both are in love with women who claim they can only love a man named Ernest.
Chaos and great silliness ensue.
But, this being Oscar Wilde, it’s a very intellectual and intelligent silliness.
This is a farcical comedy of manners, or, maybe it’s more accurate to say, a comedy of mismanners, poking fun at society.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is well-guided by director Chris Clavelli, who keeps the action moving swiftly and wrings every last possible laugh out of the material. This is a cast that knows how to hit all the right notes and work well as a comedic ensemble.
The diction is crisp, the jokes sharp, and the plot increasingly absurd. They all deliver Wilde’s lines perfectly.
Typically a three-act play, Mr. Clavelli has bridged the last two acts, adding a scene change that adds to the play’s insanity. We watch as a housekeeper (Briana McVaugh) directs the servants in carrying off props and replacing them with new ones, waving her arms about like a conductor. Kicking up her heels, she even feather-dusts the hedges. It all makes perfect sense in this zany world they’ve created.
Costume designer Stefanie Genda has created some stunning outfits, including Lady Bracknell’s purple gown and Lane’s graphic black-and-white suit. The childlike clothing of Cecily and the oversized pink bow in her hair emphasizes her girlishness and innocence. And Algernon’s colorful vests and patterned socks reflect his flamboyance.
Kimberly V. Powers designed the minimalist set, which is open, yet lets you know you’re in a London flat, a country garden, and then inside a Jack’s country manor. Because this is performed in the round, it’s not always possible to see everyone’s face all the time, which is a shame. And on opening night, some lines were drowned out by laughter, unfortunately.
This play is stuffed full of bon mots, such as Lady Bracknell declaring, “I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing.” Or, her comment to Jack, “To lose one parent…may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness.”
Great lines are tossed about like confetti or delivered as asides to the audience.
And this ensemble of actors are all superlative at comedic timing and delivery.
Mr. Murphy and Mr. Roll play well off of each other, as do their two love interests.
But special mention must be given to Ms. Neuberger, who never disappoints. Her Miss Prism is a bundle of contradictions, knowledgeable yet innocent, kindly yet judgmental.
And casting Ms. Halstead as Lady Bracknell was inspired. In a role that is sometimes filled by a man, Ms. Halstead is more than adequate. Her Lady Bracknell commands attention every time she steps on the stage, haughty and self-assured, concerned about appearances and social standing. Her disdain for others is palpable …and thoroughly enjoyable.
The success of “The Importance of Being Earnest” should remind Florida Rep that its audiences crave meaty fare and are quite willing to see a challenging show that requires some effort.
Mr. Wilde’s play is that rarest of animals: smart and funny, full of absurdities yet wise.
It’s a gleeful, giddy night at the theater. ¦
In the KNOW
“The Importance of Being Earnest”
When: through March 11
Where: ArtStage Studio Theatre of Florida Repertory Theatre, 2267 Bay Street, downtown Fort Myers
Info: 239.332.4488 or www.floridarep.org