Smart, funny and witty: Theatre Calgary’s ‘The Importance of being Earnest’

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“Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

This Oscar Wilde quote is a stand out line from The Importance of Being Earnest and is one of the lines in the play that Theatre Calgary’s Artistic Director Stafford Arima picked out of the show. It seems to capture the spirit of this production of Wilde’s famous play. It’s witty, funny and sardonic. Director Bronwyn Steinberg has infused fun into the production, from the very first note. With a cast of seriously talented artists, a set and projection design that is beautiful and a script that is full of charm, Theatre Calgary’s production is a winner.

The classic comedy tells of two best friends John (Michael Rolfe) and Algernon (Christopher Duthie) who both are leading double lives. John goes by ‘Jack’ in the country and ‘Earnest’ in the city and pretends that he has a brother that goes by Jack or Earnest, depending on John’s location. Algernon visits his imaginary friend “Bunbury” (who is “constantly ill”) in the country, to avoid social obligations in the city. It would all be fine and kept straight if John didn’t propose to Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, whom he is in love with, but who also believes him to be named Earnest. When Algernon goes to visit John in the country, he pretends to be John’s brother ‘Earnest’ and promptly falls in love with Cecily (Kathleen Faith Ballangan). John is Cecily’s guardian and finds himself in a position of power when Algernon proposes to Cecily, because Lady Bracknell (Valerie Planche) isn’t particularly a fan of John. This matters because she oversees Algernon as his aunt and Gwendolen, as her mother. It all gets even more complicated because both Cecily and Gwendolyn don’t think they could be in love with their respective men if they weren’t named Earnest. Throw in Dr. Chasuble (Kevin Rothery), a Reverend who is willing to baptize both John and Algernon and who is secretly in love with Cecily’s tutor Miss Prism (Shari Wattling). For added hilarity there is John’s butler Merriman (Duval Lang) and Algernon’s servant Lane (David Sklar).

It sounds very complicated, but it’s not as it plays out on stage, except when John pretends that his brother Earnest has died, and the Reverend and Miss Prism are understandably shocked when Earnest-Algernon walks through the door. There isn’t a fallout to that twist in the narrative. 

The cast has the serious task of delivering their lines with enough irony that it is completely hilarious but also being serious enough that the whole play doesn’t fall apart. Everyone is up to the task. Duthie’s Algernon is bit of a balancing act, with this production slightly hinting at the character’s romantic preference to be men, but those hints don’t go overboard. Duthie is so funny and solid. He makes the whole comedy surrounding his appetite very funny and he is a great player in this Wilde adventure. Rolfe and Ballangan are both equally talented with the serious comedy. They both deliver their lines with a comedic twist, but their physical comedy is not as sharp as it could be. The shining stars of this play are definitely Planche and Howard. Their deadpan is on point and they can bring down the house with the irony that they deliver in every line. It is brilliant. Sklar, Lang and Rothery are a great supporting cast, adding to the hilarity on stage. Wattling is a fine balance of comedic and demure.

The projection design by Beth Kates is beautiful and paired with Anton De Groot’s set design, it takes over the stage, setting each scene strongly in London, or in the country, though De Groot’s one tree in the second half looks a bit awkward (is that a bonsai?). Ralamy Kneeshaw’s costume design is fun and I love the peacock feathers in the hat that Aunt Augusta wears. Alixandra Cowman’s sound design and composition really captures the comedic flare of the play, especially with the dance music.

Theatre Calgary’s production of The Importance of Being Earnestis a much needed theatre production. Even a century and a half later, Wilde’s lines still hold a lot of weight and relevance and Steinberg’s direction delivers a smart play with a well measured comedic flare.

Theatre Calgary’s production of The Importance of Being Earnestruns until November 19th. More information is available online.

Photo Credit: (l to r) Emily Howard, Kathleen Faith Ballangan, Michael Rolfe, Christopher Duthie in The Importance of Being Earnest. (Photo: Trudie Lee)

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