By Paul Love
For those not familiar with it, The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy that is essentially about two friends, Algernon (Barry McCluskey) and Jack (Jack Copland), who have created fictitious people in their lives to avoid bothersome social obligations. Jack is in love with Gwendolyn (Manon Ens-Lapointe), and Algernon is in love with Cecily (Lexi MacRae). Shenanigans and sneaky behaviour lead to mistaken identity, confusion, and an abundance of hilarity involving cucumber sandwiches, handbags, and German language lessons. Oscar Wilde wrote Earnest in the late 19th century as a means of poking fun at the unimaginative and indulgent nature of the aristocracy.
Theatre on the Ridge’s annual summer festival tends to focus, for the most part, on intimate, character-driven productions (think Joan McLeod’s The Valley or Graham, Tomlinson, and Vlaskalic’s The Drowning Girls), which allows the company to use appropriately minimalist sets that can accommodate the impermanence needed to stage several productions over the space of two months. So it was with some curiosity and, admittedly, trepidation that I sat in the darkened Town Hall 1873, awaiting to see how this company would tackle Oscar Wilde’s extravagant satirization of the aristocracy. My trepidation was immediately put to rest. Instead of a traditional flats-and-frames set, Algernon’s flat and Jack’s country home and garden are presented with images projected on a scrim — simple and effective. Add to it Carey Nicholson‘s great set pieces and Judith Sanders and Sheila Nicholson‘s luxurious costumes, and all the extravagance needed is there.
This is not a play, however, that can get by on lovely costumes and convincing sets alone. Wilde, like Shakespeare and Shaw, wrote dialogue that requires its actors to not simply deliver it properly — they must deeply understand it, as well. This cast does. And they are all up to the task of delivering that dialogue with spot-on English accents and a wonderful cadence that keeps the play rolling merrily along. Jack Copland gives a powerhouse performance as Jack. Whether he’s exasperated by Algernon’s behaviour, struggling against Lady Bracknell’s forbidding attitude, professing his love for Gwendolyn, or attempting to fib his way out of a sticky situation, Mr. Copland does so with full commitment, presenting us an everyman who we can root for but also enjoy laughing at. Barry McCluskey portrays Algernon with a perfect devil-may-care attitude and playful disposition. Little moments like placing a tiny piece of sandwich on the couch to tie his shoes and then plucking that last morsel up and eating it are great little bits that show us Mr. McCluskey’s full embodiment of the character. He and Mr. Copland take their respective characters to the next level with their excellent chemistry. Manon Ens-Lapointe plays Gwendolyn with a determined, no-nonsense attitude. She has great chemistry with Lexi MacRae, whose young, naïve Cecily is played with an excitable vapidity which is heightened (to hilarious effect) when interacting with Ms. Ens-Lapointe’s Gwendolyn. In the usual cross-gender casting of Lady Bracknell, Daniel McCormack steals scene after scene with his marvellously over-the-top performance of a character who is the very embodiment of the aristocratic ideal — a powerful, demanding presence who stands on formality to a fault, judging everyone in her presence, and making her feelings about everything abundantly clear, whether through harsh words or one of Mr. McCormack’s perfectly placed flicks of Lady Bracknell’s hand fan. A solid, laugh-out-loud performance. The rest of the cast all add greatly to the non-stop lively nature of the production. The work done by Hair and Makeup Artist Debbie Begg to age Frances Loiselle as Miss Prism and Duncan Gibson-Lockhart as Dr. Chasuble was quite convincing, which made me wonder why not very much was done to age Ian Williams in an otherwise convincing performance as the wonderfully dry butler, Lane.
Co-directors Annette Stokes and Michael Serres did a great job of matching the movement of the play to its fast-paced dialogue. They also make full use of the stage, and even have characters entering and exiting via the centre aisle, which works well.
Put simply, The Importance of Being Earnest is a great play. In the hands of the talented Theatre on the Ridge cast and crew, it is a must-see production.
The show is being staged at the historic Town Hall 1873 in Port Perry, 302 Queen St. Remaining performances are August 7 and 9 at 7:30 pm, and August 10 at 2 pm. For more information, visit the website.