“The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” smirks Algernon Moncrieff (Kevin Q. Hilgartner ’16), a rich society man determined to live a life of purposeful moral negligence. The HRDC’s new production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which runs Oct. 16-25 in Farkas Hall, shows that this phrase is just as relevant in a modern setting as it was in its Victorian origins. Although the show, directed by Olivia M. Munk ’16, tends to get caught up in its own histrionics, its experienced actors and intelligent direction pull through to make it a cleverly delivered, flawlessly timed production built for levity and amusement.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” follows two society men in a farcical search for a separation of public and private life. In the process, they manage to make up two more characters, impersonate the same man (who doesn’t exist), and, of course, find love—or something close enough to it to get married. The play features Jacob D. Rienstra ’17 as John Worthing (known as Jack), Olivia R. Miller ’16 as Gwendolen Fairfax, Taylor L. Vandick ’16 as Cecily Cardew, and Caleb Spiegel Ostrom ’18 as Lady Bracknell.
While Munk’s direction successfully makes use of the updated setting, the advancement of the script into the 21st century is at times awkward and superficial. The dichotomy between the two settings used in this version of the play, Brooklyn and the Hamptons, reflects the discrepancies between the two concepts. The modern world of New York is wildly different from the play’s original setting, yet the modern transference of Wilde’s classic comedy—overseen by dramaturg Emma R. Adler ’16 (an inactive Crimson Arts editor)—is nevertheless a primarily faithful one, generally keeping in line with his original work almost line by line. The random insertions of modern culture, from hashtags to derogatory comments on veganism, then seem out of place and disrupt the flow of the performance. The play could have been directly related to modern culture in a much more nuanced manner instead of simply slotting in some comedic lines about Long Island or having Hilgartner and Rienstra sing, snap, and practically howl to an overtly horrible reproduction of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which only adds to the over-dramatic acting present in some scenes.
At times, the actors get carried away. From Gwendolen’s screeching stress-giggles to melodramatically delivered monologues to Jack’s romantic ramblings about Gwen and Cecily’s tantrum when denied her engagement, some of the scenes are overdone. Toward the end of the play, the actors become overly aware of the humor of their own lines, making the audience, like Jack, “sick to death of cleverness.” However, the majority of the play is delivered with reliable finesse. The actors’ extreme comfort on stage reveals itself in a delighted chase scene between Hilgartner and Rienstra,running around stage and throwing their lines over their shoulders to each other, and the simultaneous speech in the third act among Vandick, Miller, Hilgartner, and Rienstra. Their constant movement about the stage keeps the play alive, allowing them to deliver Wilde’s famed epigrams with ease and irreverence.
The instrumental music accompaniment, however, composed by Eric R. Corcoran ’16, is what really steals the proverbial spotlight. Every note played in pairing with the actors’ lines only serves to add to the experience in enriching and humorous ways. Set to the audience’s right, the orchestra doesn’t distract or detract from the onstage action but rather offers a grounded and romantic live accompaniment. The stage is solidly done as well, with simple backgrounds and minimal decor, allowing the majority of the focus to remain on the actors’ capers and verbal sparring. The cast interacts with the sparse props—chairs, food, and drinks—to great comedic effect.
This production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a well-timed, well-directed exercise in purposeful cleverness. While the modern interpretation seems out of place at times, the acting is inventively hilarious—if occasionally overwrought—and the staging and directing are thoughtful and intelligent, making for a fun, interesting reproduction of Wilde’s classic farce.