San Diego, CA---If you see one, must you see the other? The one is Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being “Earnest” and the other is Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties”. The two are being played in repertory at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town through Oct. 27th. The choice is to see them either separately, together or just one and then decide later on the other.
If your theatre urges are like mine, you like to see everything. Recently, I did catch both shows on the same day. If you are looking for a recommendation I would suggest one at a time or if only one, the highly stylized and completely charming and delicious “The Importance of Being Earnest” would be my choice. On the other hand, if you are a fan of Stoppard’s and groove with his intellectual gamesman ship, go for “Travesties”, but read up.
Cygnet’s artistic director Sean Murray is no stranger to this coupling of Wilde and Stoppard. Years ago, as artistic director at North Coast Repertory Theatre, he mounted these same two plays. It is no accident then that his success with the two is visible from the outset.
The excellent double casting, to the interchangeable sets (Sean Fanning) to the stunning period look in clothes (Shirley Pierson) to the, at times, outlandish wigs and makeup, (Peter Herman), to Chris Rynne’s lighting and Kevin Anthenill’s sound design fit together like hand and glove. All of the above go in to the success in the pairing of these two pieces that share some of the same characters and most of the same actors.
“I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.” Witticisms like this are not uncommon in Oscar Wilde’s “The Important of Being Earnest”.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is all about deception, pretending and hypocrisy. Victorian attitudes, morals, manners and mores score equally. The fun begins with Earnest (Brian Mackay) who is in fact leading a double life; he’s Jack in the country and Earnest (his brother) in the city and thinks nothing of hiding in this little secret. And… he’s not the only one.
His best friend Algernon (Jordan Miller) has the same affliction. Some know him as Algernon and some as Bunbery. Neither Earnest or Burberry exist, but it allows Jack and Algernon to play the field as bad boys in a social climate that frowns on anything less than proper.
This type of behavior plays havoc with Earnest’s (Jack) love interest Gwendolen (Jacque Wilke), who also happens to be Algernon’s cousin and Lady Bracknell’s (Linda Libby) daughter who live in the city, and Jack’s ward Cecily (Rachel VanWormer) who lives in the country.
When we catch up with Earnest he has returned to the city to see Gwendolen, whom he knows will be visiting Algernon. Here he proposes marriage and Gwendolen accepts; she is love with the name Earnest. Lady Bracknell has other ideas for Gwendolen, but that’s minor compared to Jack’s tsoris when Algernon finds a cigarette case with Cecily’s name engraved on it. He taunts Earnest to an almost show down between them, but unbeknownst to either of them, they are connected at the hip and more alike than they could ever admit.
Under artistic director Sean Murray’s deft direction Wilde’s comedy of manners sails along at a clip so amusingly fast that it’s almost impossible to keep up with all the delectable little tidbits taking place on stage. The casting is brilliant.
Linda Libby’s Lady Bracknell (usually played in drag) is just perfect as the highfaluting, overbearing and demanding model of Victorian hypocrisy. “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.”
Sharp as a tack she swoops down on her prey never letting anything get in the way of her plans or opinion. And she proves to be a master at it. And…I love her look; hat askew almost falling off her head and colorful outfits to die for.
Both Jacque Wilke and Rachael Van Wormer, who take on the same characters in “Travesties”, are another pair, both loving the name Earnest. (Algernon pretends to be Earnest Jack’s brother when he pays a surprise visit to Cecily at the country home).
Wilke, who wears Shirley Pierson’s costumes as if she stepped out of a bandbox is a kick as the shallow Gwendolen whose love affair with the name Earnest seems deeper than with the man himself. Both women write in their diaries, both are dedicated to and used to getting their own way. Van Wormer’s Cecily, while of the younger set, fits the role of the spoiled country gal yet schooled upper crust Victorian pampered child.
Jordan Miller’s Algernon Moncrieff is the dandy in the group, as was Wilde, and plays and looks the part perfectly. He too wears Pierson’s costumes as his appearance is of utmost importance to him. "I never have any appetite unless I have a buttonhole first".
In “Travesties” his Henry Carr character is much more physical as he bounds about from the younger Carr to the elder conjuring up memories of a time long ago. (More on that later.) Brian Mackey is the stalwart Jack/Earnest and always impresses. As Earnest in “The importance of…” Wilde uses both men as farcical characters committed to being absurd in their thinking without being funny, just seemingly clueless.
Manny Fernandes is a kick as the butler’s, one in the country the other in the city. He turns heads as Lenin in “Travesties. David Cochran-Heath (good to see him back on stage) is perfect as the fluttery Dr. Chasuble who does a number in christening Jack and Algernon. Both want to change their names to Earnest. But more importantly he goes goofy around Ms. Prism, Cecily’s teacher. He also plays Bennett, Carr’s manservant in “Travesties”. Maggie Carney is both Ms. Prism and Nadya. As always she succeeds at making both credible.
Piggybacking on the heels of ‘Earnest’ Stoppard’s mind play, “Travesties” is presented as a stream of consciousness flowing from Henry Carr’s on again off again time lapsed memory recounting an incident during a 1917 meeting when three historical giants, communist leader Lenin (Manny Fernandes is especially effective here), writer James Joyce (Patrick McBride) who was in the throws of writing “Ulysses”, and Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara (Brian Mackey) who was making breakthrough inroads on his own arts movement, could be found working on their collective interests in a library in Zurich.
Carr was in fact a minor British government official in Zurich around the time of WWI. It’s his story as related through his fuzzy memory of his meeting the three at a library in Zurich that we are witnessing.
Coincidentally, this is also the time frame around which a production of Wilde’s “The Important of Being Earnest” was being mounted by a group of actors in which Joyce was business manager and he, Carr, played Algernon, ergo, Gwendolen and Cecily keep popping up in Carr’s confused narrative throughout.
But the story doesn’t end there. Joyce and Carr got into a bitter dispute over money that ended in the courts in which Carr was ordered to pay Joyce sixty francs for trouble and expenses, which Carr later referred to as a travesty of justice.
And so the play goes back and forth weaving in and out of Carr’s memory playing out different scenarios of the same incident then rewinding and fast forwarding as in an earlier day movie clip only this time around they have different outcomes as Carr’s recall fades, comes to focus, fades, etc. It’s a clever device that Murray uses well on at least two different occasions. Chris Rynne’s lighting makes the whole thing eye-popping enjoyable and a nice change from some of Stoppard’s intellectual babble that I must admit is quite out of the realm of my simple minded comprehension.
As mentioned at the top of my review, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is my first choice to see by far. If you are up the Stoppard references to ‘Earnest”, Lenin, Joyce (He also managers a few limericks) and Tzara and Dada, the revolution, art, philosophical changes in opinion and can manage to sort out the pieces of the layered puzzles of Stoppard’s mind games without getting frustrated before show’s end (2.5 hours) I applaud you.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Oct. 27th
Organization: Cygnet Theatre Company
Production Type: Comedyx2
Where: 4040 Twigs St. Old Town
Ticket Prices: $19.00-$54.00
Venue: Theatre in Old Town