Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a delicate paradox of absurd gravity and reverent frivolity. Social institutions are mere distractions from the important things in life—like cucumber sandwiches, or the refined art of doing nothing. Ultimately, Wilde’s best-known dramatic work is a scathing celebration of surfaces and outward appearances that, through a barrage of epigrams, shed a shockingly new light on Victorian London at the time of its premiere.
Queen’s Vagabond’s production of Earnest is certainly concerned with the question of style. The show bursts with visual intensity, chiefly in the costume design led by Parker O’Connor. In the play’s opening scene, Algernon (Zach Closs) lolls about looking like a coked out glam rocker, while Jack (Sean Meldrum) leaps frantically across the stage in bright blue tights. Lady Bracknell (Luke Brown) is an exploded red velvet cake, and when she appears, Cecily (Sophie Barkham) is Princess Peach’s hipster little sister. While most of the designs are representative of the period, Wilde’s central contention of social disguise is cleverly modernized through the leading duo’s drastic change from city to country clothes with an effect that period-appropriate dress simply wouldn’t allow.
This relates to what perhaps is the show’s toughest hurdle. The arresting makeup and costuming, along with the other design updates, are just that: cosmetic. A text that cut then-contemporary London high society to ribbons can’t help but feel somewhat dry and staid when contrasted with modern aesthetic principles. Brief moments, particularly when performances intersect with lighting and sound design at interesting, jarring angles, breathe life into the show, but such instances are unfortunately inconsistent, and the majority of the show is played too straight too often.
Without a strong driving purpose, scenes that in the original offer wry social commentary, like those featuring Chasuble (Ethan Rotenberg) or Miss Prism (Deanna Choi), can feel hopelessly functionary despite the actors’ best efforts. The show sets itself aloft again, with a physical gag or an eye-catching scene transition.
The piece is not without its highlights. Closs’ Algernon is charmingly insouciant, self-assured but never grating, though maybe a touch too disaffected even in shocking reveals. Brown’s Bracknell is immensely entertaining, though both he, and Meldrum spend the show somewhat awkwardly perched above the rest of the cast in their level of vocal and physical animation, respectively. Sophie Barkham’s Cecily and Hannah Komlodi’s Gwendolyn both perform capably, excelling once able to set aside their respective romance to tear the other apart in the classic garden confrontation.
Sleek and stylish, and not without a few clever tricks, Vagabond’s The Importance of Being Earnest played at the Rotunda Theatre in Kingston November 26-29.
Jesse Gazic, Online Contributor
Photography: Chloe Sobel