Oscar Wilde’s last and most popular play has come to the Fremont Centre Theatre to delight audiences with uproarious satire a la Wilde. First performed in 1895 in London, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is the author’s lampoon of Victorian manners and treats most institutions, even marriage, as trivial and worth poking fun at. Reviews of the time were mixed due to Wilde’s failure to promote a righteous message, a given in Victorian times. To quote H.G. Wells, “More humorous dealing with theatrical conventions would be difficult.” At the same time, George Bernard Shaw opined that, though the play was “extremely funny,” it was Wilde’s “first really heartless one.” Of course, the Court’s revelation that Wilde was homosexual and his subsequent prison sentence of two years’ hard labor did not add to the play’s early acceptance.
But time would prove the play’s worth. THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST has been revived multiple times and adapted into three films, operas, musicals, and radio and television productions. Even with the obvious difficulties in translating the pun intended in the title and in the very name of Ernest, the script has even been adapted in many languages. Clearly, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is here to stay.
Set in urban London and countrified Shropshire, England, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is a story of assumed identities and the chaos that ensues. Best friends and idle Victorian dandies John (Jack) Worthing (Adam Langsam) and Algernon Moncrieff (Austin Hall) discover during a brief visit that Jack – who lives in the country with his young “excessively pretty” ward and heiress Cecily Cardew (Veronica Koutsky) – hopes to marry Algernon’s beautiful cousin Gwendolen Fairfax (Roza Zemla). And the only barrier between them is the very proper Lady Bracknell (Tamarah Ashton), Gwendolen’s guardian and staunch upholder of Victorian principles. In order to escape the boredom of the country and to see his lady love, Jack has invented a wastrel younger brother named Ernest who lives in London – and often requires his older brother’s assistance to get out of jams. Meanwhile, intrigued by Jack’s description of his charming ward, Algernon goes off to Jack’s country estate posing as Jack’s troublesome brother Ernest in order to meet the lovely Cecily. But romance has its difficulties, and there are ruts in the road to true love. As luck would have it, it soon turns out that both Gwendolen and Cecily have a romantic fixation on a name: Ernest. Much to Jack’s and Algernon’s chagrin.
The tangled web of love, lies, and Victorian conceits offers a formidable canvas for Wilde to decorate with witty banter and satirical humor. Director Jack J. Bennett has a raft of fun guiding the very talented cast through Wilde’s maze of Victoriana. A “Jack-of-all-show-business-trades,” Bennet has himself worked as actor, stand-up comedian, and producer in stage, film, and television productions – and brings his many talents to the job of transporting Wilde to South Pasadena. THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST is a production of the Young Stars Theatre, best known for its young casts. The current production, however, features more seasoned actors who are experts in making the audience chuckle, groan, guffaw, and laugh uproariously. And stay tuned for some very unexpected surprises. The only possible shortcoming in the entire show is dodgy sound in the streaming/video versions. The costumes are sumptuous, and the small Fremont stage has been converted to a very appealing slice of Victorian England. This is a fun production worth seeing.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST runs through 9/25/21 with performances at 7 p.m. on Fridays and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturdays (dark on 9/3 and 9/4). The Fremont Centre Theatre is located at 1000 Fremont Avenue, South Pasadena, CA 91030. Tickets are $30. In addition to the live in-person performances, the show will also be livestreamed with a livestream family pass available for $30. For information and reservations, go online.