Neptune’s Earnest: A Little Something Sensational to Read on the Train

michael therriault, vanessa walton-bone & jack wynters

I remember first reading Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) aloud in small groups as part of my grade twelve English class and thinking, “[t]his play is over a hundred years old and yet, it is just as funny and just as easy to understand as anything in movies or on TV today.” It was one of the first plays that I loved without needing to try and one that cemented my opinion that there was more gloriousness to the theatre than just the American musical. The Neptune Theatre production, playing until February 17th, boasts of a terrific cast and feels fresh and playful with Wilde’s wit, cleverness and farcical absurdities becoming even more delightful and wickedly satisfying with the passing of over a century.

The play is a farcical satire of Victorian culture centering on two idle young British gentleman, Algernon and Jack, who have invented fictional friends and relations in order to escape the strenuous social obligations expected of the Aristocracy. Both fall in love with young ladies who believe, for a conglomeration of complex reasons, that their names are Ernest and chaos ensues as double lives and true identities are exposed, muffins are ingested en masse and the mystery of a lost baby in a handbag (with handles) comes to its gleeful conclusion. Wilde’s writing is tightly woven with word play, epigrams and paradoxes touting their own cleverness and he continually inverts the audience’s expectations. Wilde celebrates the trivial nature of life and allows the audience to have fun at the theatre for the sake of having fun.

There is much in Neptune’s production that is beautiful. Michael Therriault plays Algernon like an over-indulged, but mischievously charming, young boy who contrasts nicely with David Leyshon’s more refined and repressed Jack. Their dynamic with one another suggests a long history of Algernon foiling Jack’s meticulously designed plans, yet Jack being unable to part with their friendship. Marla McLean is a spitfire filled with lustful flirtation and innuendo as Jack’s fiancée Gwendolen, while Chilina Kennedy is exuberant like a child, naive in wonder, but with a carnivorous and curious longing for a taste of wickedness as Algernon’s love interest Cecily. Therriault and Kennedy have some especially delicious moments of teasing and confusing one another while their desire and sexual chemistry percolates in an intensely palpable way, drawing them dangerously close together. Kennedy’s dynamic with McLean is wonderfully explosive as Gwendolen and Cecily collide distinctly within the realm of Victorian propriety and then, of course, unite with absurd tenderness as wounded sisters led astray by deceitful men. Vanessa Walton-Bone is formidable as Algernon’s haughty and often scandalized aunt, Lady Bracknell. Every word Walton-Bone says goes straight to the funny bone. Sean Mulcahy has created a gorgeous set and costume design that transport the audience immediately into the grandiose world of Wilde’s dandies.

There are a few places where George Pothitos’ direction seems to stifle the momentum of the actors. The signature crispness of movement and speech so integral to farce is inconsistent, especially in the First Act, and there are several moments where the actors are standing sideways speaking to one another for long stretches of time where the actors’ motivations seem to be toward movement and the blocking cuts the audience off from the scene. At times the balance between expressing Wilde’s constant heightened language and grounding the play in some sense of emotional reality that an audience can grasp onto is not achieved as expertly as one would expect from this cast. Pothitos has a tendency to flatten the productions that he directs and I wish that he would allow them to breathe a little more that they might live a little lighter and freer and be able to soar as I can see this production wants to. He casts incredibly talented people; perhaps he would benefit from trusting their instincts a little more.

In all, The Importance of Being Earnest is a delightful farcical play with almost all the ingredients of a theatrical home run and many lovely elements and moments, yet the production is sadly lacking the strong directorial hand to cohesively bring all the elements together as tightly and luminously as the play and the actors deserve.

The Importance of Being Earnest plays at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall (1593 Argyle Street) until February 17th Tuesday to Friday at 7:30pm with shows on Saturdays at 4:00pm and 8:30pm and shows on Sunday at 2:00pm and 7:30pm. Tickets range in price from $20.00-$56.00 and are available in person at the Box Office (1593 Argyle Street, Halifax) by phone at 902.429.7070 or online at the following website. For more information please visit Find Neptune on Facebook and on Twitter

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