OTHER REVIEWS OF THIS PRODUCTION
Review: Most importantly, this play is delightfully Wilde and Earnest Nancy Stetson for Florida Weekly
Review: Earnestly Wilde Wit Lisa Pavy, 239spot.com
IF YOU GO
What: Oscar Wilde's satire of Victorian aristocrats
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays through May. 15
Where: 701 5th Avenue South, Naples
Information: (239) 263-7990, naplesplayers.com
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
NAPLES — The Naples Players saved the best for last - opening "The Importance of Being Earnest" with high camp, high fashion and acres of droll snobbery Wednesday night. Oscar Wilde's delicious prose gets lapped up with all the glee of a ravenous tea party descending on tray of cucumber sandwiches, scones and buns - Bunbury that is!
"Earnest" premiered in London on Valentine's Day 1895 - the height of Wilde's literary career; he would be convicted on charges of gross indecency by May of the same year. A 1952 British film features actress Edith Evans giving an outrageous reading of Lady Bracknell's line "A handbag?" There was also a 2002 film version starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Dame Judi Dench.
The play concerns the adventures of two aristocratic young gentlemen of leisure. Jack pretends to have a troublesome brother so he can frequent London. Algernon pretends to have an invalid friend Bunbury in the countryside. Jack - who goes by Earnest - loves Gwendolyn, but is Cecily's guardian. Algernon falls in love with Cecily. Lady Bracknell - Gwendolyn's mother and Algernon's aunt - doesn't like anybody and pronounces "Never speak disrespectfully of Society, ... only people who can't get into it do that."
Wilde turned his razor-sharp wit on the suffocating morals of the Victorian age with - with lacerating effect. "Earnest" means to poke holes in the hypocrisy of a society that considered the Lady Bracknell character - and her obsession with money, status and lineage - proper. The take-away from "Earnest" is "don't be fake," "don't put on airs" and "be yourself" - as valid a set of commandments now as then.
Director Dallas Dunnagan pushes her cast to the edge of caricature. Wilde constructed his characters with as much artifice as humanity - and Dunnagan grasps that these are meant to be portraits, not real people. From the raspy disapproval of Lady Bracknell to the carefree, sandwich-chomping Algy to the catfight between Gwendolyn and Cecily, the literary creations sizzle.
If there's a criticism - it is that some of the supporting cast - those playing the servants - don't lean into those characters with that same crisp flair. The Lane and Merriman characters in particular can be as much an entertaining commentary on the upstairs/downstairs nature of Victorian society as the empty-headed aristocrats.
Megan McCombs creates something special once she dons Lady Bracknell's royal purple gown and lifeboat-size hat with at least three different types of flowers and not one but two three-foot feathers that bob hypnotically every time she moves her head. She growls, she snaps, she makes notes on the marriage potential of half the cast and finally, crooks her finger just so in a gesture of command that no one could ignore. The character is grotesque, monstrous and hilarious all at once.
Mark Vanagas (Jack) and Robert Armstrong (Algernon) bounce around the stage with the energy of schoolboys on holiday. Their jollity and devil-may-care attitudes bring the show to life as they trade bon mots and stuff themselves with muffins and cucumber sandwiches. The catfight between Gwendolyn (Jessica Walck) and Cecily (Jasmine Vizena) brings out the claws - and one of the night's funniest sequences, with lines like "Detestable girl! But I require tea!"
The fashion - acres of handmade Victorian-era gowns from Dot Auchmoody's costume shop - deserves a runway show. The gentlemen's suits are lovely, but the gowns steal the show. Vizena's pink confection highlights her status as a delicate flower, while Walck gets an icy blue and and a green stripe - emphasizing her character's aristocratic roots. The show's extravagant millinery comes via the talents of Vanagas; either of Lady Bracknell's showpieces could grace the heads of royalty.
Todd Potter's spare, modern set - with Jeff Weiss's projections of trees and a garden at the back, framed by the suggestion of windows - allows the sparkling dialogue to take center stage.
"Earnest" breathes stylish, brilliant life into a literary classic. The show pokes a dozen holes in the ideas of "proper society" and puts on a fashion parade doing it. Jessica Walck and Jasmine Vizena will make you laugh as they claw each other in the most polite catfight ever staged - and Megan McCombs sweeps all before her Lady Bracknell.
As Algernon says, "It is awfully hard work doing nothing." E-mail me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.