Would the Real Earnest Please Stand Up?

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Would a rose by any other name not smell as sweet? Of course not. A name says so much about a person–their abilities, their values, and their character–so it’s only right to expect perfection of it, or so Oscar Wilde conveys in his Victorian farce “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The English and fine arts departments, in conjunction with the Performing Arts Club, under the direction of Dr. Nate Leonard, adapted the century old drama for the Champ Auditorium.

The story line follows two characters, portrayed by Tim Aldred and Alec Bise, in their attempts at courting their love interests. Aside from their massive deceptions regarding their true identities, both suitors embody basic Victorian principles of decency and integrity. Naturally, all the characters assume an understandable, legitimate liking towards the name “Earnest,” since it represents qualities embraced by all the characters at all times: honesty and respectability.

The audience member may at first wish to dismiss this comedy as a meaningless series of ridiculous events, but closer inspection reveals a clever multi-leveled critique of society. The setting, clothing and mannerisms all reflect the play’s Victorian setting, but the mocking of various values and social norms still seems fairly relevant, especially on a college campus. The action and conflicts faced by the characters are reminiscent of bureaucratic processes and unnecessary drama that composes academic life. By the end of the production, the audience is undoubtedly thinking both, “That’s so true,” and, “Why can’t my name be Earnest?”

The advancement of the plot depends heavily upon the interplay between the characters. Every actor served as an ideal match for their respective personas. Gwendolyn, portrayed by sophomore Carrie Antoine, possesses a unique degree of pretentiousness and a contradictory set of values. Antoine impeccably conveys the absurdity of her character’s views and mannerisms in a way that satires the character she represents and endears her to the viewer. Her acting perfectly complemented that of senior Tim Aldred, who played her suitor Jack/John/Earnest Worthing.

Aldred likewise exhibited a high degree of ease in portraying his character. The wannabe Earnest experiences several identity changes throughout the play and assumes different fronts, depending on whom he’s interacting with. Through all of this, Aldred’s acting never diminishes. Together, the two characters and their hypocritical beliefs and actions built off of each other and really emphasized each other’s abilities. The exchanges and chemistry appeared very natural and real, attributing some legitimacy to the ridiculousness of the play’s conflicts.

Additionally, Aldred had wonderful chemistry with the other male lead, played by freshman Alec Bise, who portrayed Algernon “Earnest” Moncreif. Bise exhibited a wide range of skill in his role. From his mastery of Victorian English to his physical interchanges with Aldred, involving several chases across stage and around chairs and tables, Bise’s acting abilities encompassed several dimensions.

The main characters were supported by a cast of equally exquisite individuals. Senior Freda Boateng played the young Cecily, the ward of Mr. Worthing, who develops a crush on Algernon based solely on his name, and subsequently plans their engagement without meeting him. Cecily’s actions towards the false Earnest prove rather stalkerish and slightly creepy, but Boateng comes fully into the role, giving the character a level of grace only she could bring. Junior Emma Kliethermes, playing Lady Bracknell, conveys her character’s austere nature in a way that at once appears very believable while simultaneously revealing the ridiculousness of her beliefs.

Dr. Leonard made several directorial decisions that further made the play unique and added to the talents of the actors. The part of Dr. Chasuble, the rector of the nearby church, went not to a man, as intended by Wilde, but to senior Emily Kesel. The part usually ensures that not even religion remains free from Wilde’s lampooning, due to the fact that Chasuble seems willing to perform christenings to appease the frivolity of the main character. With the changing of the part from male to female, the play adds gender roles to the mix of social issues tackled by Wilde. Kesel fulfills all these expectations and more, especially in her interactions with her love interest Ms. Prism, played by sophomore Tiffany Crawford.

The stage utilized minimal props to develop setting, relying primarily on a few pieces of very Victorian furniture. While the stage lacked extensive background, the audience member still felt very much a part of the action, given Dr. Leonard’s decision to place the entirety of seating directly on stage, an arrangement similar to that of last year’s production of “Trojan Women.” The intimate setting ensured that no viewer was too far from any action, since the actors frequently tore down the fourth wall by striding down the center aisle in a play that already challenged several norms. Granted, the audience members sitting in the back row risked falling into the orchestra should one lean too far back while laughing (a very understandable reaction), everyone present would undoubtedly agree that that was a risk worth taking, given what the special arrangement added to the production.

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