Ohio Shakespeare Festival’s ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ is a farcical delight
At the turn of the last century in jolly olde England the country was transitioning from the Victorian age into the short lived Edwardian era. It was comparable to the United States as it passed from the conservative 50s into the wild and free 60s except instead of sex, drugs and rock and roll it was sex, more sex, alcohol and the Tango (gasp) and jazz (gasp gasp).
During the time of ‘The Widow of Windsor’s’ sixty four year reign, marriage was considered a weapon among the upper class and royal gentry. To marry for love was unheard of. If it was romance that you sought then you should take on a discrete lover after marrying into a proper family with a proper pedigree. During this period of British history, Oscar Wilde was born and in 1895 published his comedy “The Importance of Being Ernest” which poked fun at the folly of courting and marriage among the well to do.
Ernest (John) Worthing (Andrew Cruse) is visiting his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Goeff Knox) for tea along with Lady Bracknell (Holly Humes) and her daughter Gwendolyn Fairfax (Tess Burgler) who is Algernon’s cousin. John is very much in love with Gwendolyn and desires to marry her but must past muster with the formidable mother as well as his friend. Algernon is without money but titled thus able to live a rather extravagant lifestyle.
As the two young men await the women’s arrival Algernon plays at refusing his permission to marry his cousin until Ernest tells him about a cigarette case that Ernest had left behind that bears the inscription “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.” Ernest confesses that he is living a double life. In London he is “Ernest” but at his country estate he is John (or Jack) and Cecily (Maya Nicholson) is an heiress as well as his 18 year old ward. In the country he has invented a wastrel younger brother “Ernest” whom he has to “visit” from time to time. Algernon reveals a similar deception having invented an invalid friend “Bunbury” who he “visits” in the country when in need of an escape from the city or an unwelcome social obligation. Ernest (Jack) refuses to reveal the location of his country estate.
Lady Bracknell and Gwendolyn arrive for tea and while Algernon takes Lady Bracknell to another room on some pretense Ernest (Jack) proposes to Gwendolyn who accepts but in part because she loves the name “Ernest”. Jack quietly resolves to be rechristened with the name “Ernest” as soon as possible. Lady Bracknell returns to find the couple in an intimate embrace and after forcing Gwendolyn from the room interviews Ernest (Jack) as a prospective suitor.
It is during the interview that Ernest (Jack) reveals that he is in fact an orphan who was found in a handbag in Victoria Station which puts an abrupt end to the interview. Ernest (Jack) manages to pass his country address to Gwendolyn which Algernon copies with the idea of paying Cecily a visit in the hopes of developing a romance with the young heiress.
In the garden of Jack’s (Ernest’s) estate Cecily is under the watchful eye of her governess, Miss Prism (Shley Snider). Algernon arrives with luggage pretending to be Ernest Worthing and immediately sets about to charm Cecily whose name “Ernest” she is quite fond of. Jack makes arrangements with the local rector to be rechristened as “Ernest” and decides to kill off his fictional brother “Ernest” by giving him “a severe chill in Paris” but with Algernon’s arrival as “Ernest” his story falls apart. Gwendolyn arrives having run away from home and meets Cecily alone as the two discover they are both in love with “Ernest.” With the arrival of Jack and Algernon the deception is blown apart.
Lady Bracknell arrives to find Algernon and Cecily engaged but after finding out about the young heiress’s worth agrees to the marriage. Ernest (Jack) refuses to allow the wedding unless he and Gwendolyn can be wed. The impasse breaks when Miss Prism reveals Ernest’s (Jack’s) true parental heritage.
Since February 14, 1895 when it was first staged, this farcical comedy on the social conventions of late Victorian society has been popular with all types of audiences. It is happy to note that Ohio Shakespeare Festival does it extreme justice. The acting is superb and once the actors began to tone down the British accents it was much easier to understand.
Andrew Cruse (John/Jack “Ernest”) is perfectly cast as the hapless orphan seeking love and romance. Goeff Knox (Algernon Moncrieff/Ernest) is his perfect foil who has his own agenda in mind. Holly Humes (Lady Bratnell) is the old guard seeing to it that the Victorian standards are adhered to. Tess Burgler (Gwendolyn Fairfax) and Maya Nicholson (Cecily Cordew) are wondrous as marriage fodder whose sole purpose in life is to supply “an heir and a spare.” Shley Snider does a good turn as the great reveal in the end and Geoffrey Darling (Reverend Chasuble) adds his part to the believable factor of the play. Jim Fippin (Lane) and Mark Stoffer (Merriman) stay in character as the butlers throughout their time on stage.
Director Nancy Cates keeps the pacing of the show fast and furious including the intermission changeover from parlor to garden. The comic timing is spot on. Natalie Steen’s Scenic Design is just enough to convey wealth without overloading the stage with unnecessary props. Buddy Taylor does a fine job in the sound and lighting department. Special note goes to Kelsey Tomlinson whose costuming is absolutely elegant and worth the price of the ticket.
Take a wonderful story with comedic overtones, add extraordinary actors on a well appointed stage with exquisite period costumes with a surprise ending and you have the formula for an extremely entertaining evening of great theater. This show is worth the drive to Akron. Huzzah!
“The Importance of Being Ernest” will be on stage in Greystone Hall, 103 South High Street, Akron, Ohio through May 15, 2022. For more information and tickets go to https://www.ohioshakespearefestival.com/earnest or call (330) 574-2537.