Oscar Wilde's sharp satire of the British class system comes to life on the Guthrie Wurtele Thrust stage in a lavish production that provides the audience with a little over two hours of spirited entertainment. This revival of "The Importance of Being Earnest" is well-rounded, and at moments, spectacular; it is thus the perfect way to start off a new, very promising Guthrie season.
Wilde's play is so remarkably well written that it does not require the addition of artifice. However, the witty dialogue is accompanied by several moments of physical comedy, supplied in particular by Kris Nelson in a double role. As the plot unfolds, we realize that the play meshes almost all types of comedy, as it goes beyond simple farce and slapstick. Joe Dowling's interpretation of Wilde's play takes the audience through a comedy of situation, one of manners and ideas, satire, and even the burlesque. This is a rather daunting task, but the Guthrie theater company comes through, yet again, and puts on a tremendous show.
There are two elements that stand out in this production: the role of the great Linda Thorson as Lady Bracknell, and the wonderful costume design by Matthew J. LeFebvre. The former dominates the stage with authority, as her voice seems to tower over the other actors, who are fine in their own right. Through subtle changes of tone and inflection, she effortlessly captures the essence of one of the most memorable characters in British theater. At the end of the play, Linda Thorson/Lady Bracknell finds herself in the middle of the set, surrounded by the three newly formed couples-she is in her rightful place as the center of attention. She is the glue that holds everyone together, whether fictional characters in Wilde's play, or actors in Joel Dowling's production.
Along with the very inspired costume design, which is especially spectacular for the women actors, Walt Spangler's set is peculiarly overwhelming in the second part. Just in case the audience misses out on the peculiarity of the set, the actual word "peculiar" is heard a few times in the dialogue. The repetition forces the spectators into a Brechtian awareness of the physical environment of the play. The beautiful and elegant dŽcor of a London flat in the first act transforms into problematic giant roses hanging from the ceiling and placed around the stage in the second act. It almost seems that the crowded set stifles the presence of the actors on stage. However, the choice of the set reads as a deliberate attempt to mirror the superficiality of the characters in the play. Gwendolen, played by a vivacious and inspired Heidi Armbruster, declares that style is more important than sincerity; her mother suggests that looks are everything. The set itself then becomes an image of superfluous opulence that complements the principles upheld by the characters.
For a play that does not flatter women, and that can be quite sexist at moments, this particular production relies heavily on the strength of the women actors. Linda Thorson and Heidi Armbruster anchor the aristocratic level. Erin Krakow and Suzanne Warmanen are equally skilled in their portrayal of a lesser class. Suzanne Warmanen is actually quite a crowd pleaser, not so much through her lines, but through her physical comedy. The same can be said about John Skelley (Algernon), whose facial expressions and playfulness seem to really help him connect with the audience.
In fact, this connection is
established, individually, with each
character, which is why the play is successful and the audience so
responsive. This is a play that often invites the audience to
self-reflection. Algernon and Jack discuss the possibility of going to
the theater after dinner, and the latter replies that he hates
listening, and implicitly going to the theater. It is a brilliant line
that further bonds the spectator and the actor who has briefly referred
to himself as a potential spectator. The characters of this play find
gratification by becoming someone else, and then realizing that they
were someone else. It is the same experience that the spectators live
through when watching the play. And it is why we actually love going to
the (Guthrie) theater.