Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lost in the Wilde

Earnestly al fresco - Glen Moore, Poornima Kirby, Cat Claus and Andrew Winson.

The trouble with the new Importance of Being Earnest from Moonbox Productions can be summed up in a single sentence:

It's just too earnest.

Indeed, I've been wondering since I sat through it just why this sincere little theatre company ever attempted Oscar Wilde's blithely subversive satire (no, it's not really a farce).  Moonbox first made its mark with shows like Floyd Collins and Of Mice and Men, which were done on a shoestring but still plucked the heartstrings effectively.  They soon began branching out, however, into various modes of irony (as in William Finn's A New Brain) with more mixed results. Somehow I just don't think arch alienation is in their bones - or at least not in the bones of their director, Allison Olivia Choat.

Hence the utterly fallen archness of Earnest.  Wilde's wit deconstructs just about everything in or on the late-Victorian landscape - indeed it undermines the idea of making sense in any way whatsoever. But you'd never guess that from this gently plodding rendition.  (I hope I don't have to go into the plot; if I do, you're reading the wrong blog.)  It's not that at Moonbox anything ever gets actually bad; the show coasts along on carefully studied accents and a deadpan delivery that occasionally hits the spot. But there's a strangely sincere sense of attempt to everything that ruins Wilde's façade of artifice, and the emotional backbone of the plot - basically the conflict between sex and social hierarchy - has gone soft (or even missing).  Sometimes, to be fair, there's an amusing hint of Monty-Python absurdity to the proceedings; the problem is that Monty Python is sexless, too.

Thus while Glen Moore's take on Wilde's factotum, Algernon Moncrieff, is highly detailed, it's also internally placid. (Not for nothing is "Moncrieff" close to "mon crie," i.e., "my cries" - although we won't go into the pun buried in the buns of his fictional buddy, "Bunbury.") Meanwhile Andrew Winson shows more potential as a John-Cleese-like Jack, but also never convinces us he has a hidden spark. Likewise his betrothed, Gwendolen, in the person of newcomer Cat Claus, is quite poised, but suggests few sensual secrets (and her fetish for the name of "Ernest" never strikes us as quirky enough to be amusing). But the biggest disappointment is the quotidian turn by Ed Peed as Lady Bracknell. The cross-gendered-Bracknell gambit suddenly feels a bit dated, doesn't it - but it can still work if the drag helps conjure Bracknell's inner dragon, i.e, if it's gay drag.  But if it's straight drag - well, I'm sorry, that's just wrong!

Add up all these near misses and you end up far from Wilde's acidly sparkling mark (particularly when a solid production design is repeatedly marred by intrusive sound cues). But there are a few nice acting turns I took a shine to at Moonbox.  If Catherine Lee Christie picked up her pace, she could be a memorable Miss Prism, and the reliable Gabriel Graetz has his moments as Reverend Chasuble.  Best of all is Poornima Kirby, who makes a radiant Cecily, and who seems to nudge along the second act almost single-handedly. Watching her, I wondered that more of her co-stars didn't get the right idea.

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