The Importance of Being Ernest
Scotiabank Theatre Chinook
June 2 and 25
I normally don’t have wonderful things to say about Cineplex theatres. Admission is too expensive, the popcorn is often stale or overly salty (or both) and the lobby’s arcade décor and resulting decibel level is enough to make you want to stay at home and rent a DVD instead.
But when Cineplex airs one of its Front Row Centre Events, they become my hero. In 2006, the smarty-pants at Cineplex realized that by airing quality theatre, opera and concert events, they would be able to lure back the adult audiences that had been steadily slipping away over the years. My understanding is that this strategy has been a huge success for the company, and I couldn’t be happier. The productions they show are fantastic, the filming technique superb, the price points are reasonable and because the performances are captured live-to-tape in High-Definition, it truly does feel like you are part of the real audience.
The Importance of Being Ernest, the Oscar Wilde classic, is the latest offering from the Cineplex folks. Directed by and Starring Tony-award winning actor Brian Bedford, the play debuted at Stratford in 2009 to rave reviews. Then off to Broadway it went where the raves continued, landing the play an extended run and Bedford a 2011 Tony nomination for his portrayal of Lady Bracknell. Yup. You read that right. Bedford takes on the role of the formidable older woman in the play in a way that forever changes what it means for an actor to gender-bend.
The play centers around a non-existent man named Ernest Worthing. He is the alter-ego of Jack Worthing who uses that name whenever he visits London so he can behave as he pleases without having to soil his real reputation. To his friends in the country, Ernest is Jack’s troublemaker brother. In the city, Jack is Ernest. The main reason Jack desires to visit the city these days is because he is in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax, who is very keen to marry him but cannot overcome the disapproval of her mother, Lady Bracknell. The problem it seems, is that no one knows who Jack/Ernest’s parents are. As a baby, he was found abandoned by a man who raised him, left him a fortune, an estate, and a pretty young ward – Cecily Cardew.
When Jack’s city friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Algy) learns of Cecily’s existence, he decides he must meet her. Pretending to be Ernest, he shows up at Jack’s country estate. Cecily is delighted to finally meet the black sheep of the family, and she and Algy fall in love. Jack arrives home, followed shortly thereafter by Gwendolyn and Lady Bracknell. Mistaken identity, high farce, plot twists and a surprise ending take over from there in a play that Wilde himself called “a trivial comedy for serious people.”
While the story itself may be trivial, there is no great moral lesson or social importance to be learned from the show, the use of language in the play is anything but frivolous. Wilde’s famous use of sarcasm, wit and clever turn-of-phrase are on full and glorious display in this script and the lines literally dance in your brain like an intellectual tickle-fest.
But we already know that the play itself is spectacular. The real question is, how’s the acting?
Bedford is not the first male actor to take on the role of Lady Bracknell, but there is no doubt that he is the first male to actually become the Lady Bracknell. The wonder of his acting in this performance is that he embodies the cantankerous upper-class woman without one iota of camp or affectation. In fact, he is so believably good at the part, you quickly forget it is Brian Bedford playing a woman and instead just revel in the character and her juicy, scene-stealing lines. His Tony nomination is well deserved and as my companion noted to me, “I could have watched Bedford as Lady Bracknell for 5 more hours!”
However, if you think this is a one great performance play, I am happy to say that this isn’t the case. There is not a weak link in the entire cast, and in true Wilde form, not a single character goes without the bon mot lines that keep the audience laughing. Of particular mention is Santino Fontana’s Algy, who takes his roguish persona to a new level by bringing modern effortlessness to a very smart-alecky, erudite character.
This is an outstandingly fun and clever play, performed by an outstandingly talented cast and brought to Calgary by an outstandingly savvy corporate initiative.
For the guys – Watching the men get into and out of trouble with the ladies will ring all your bells. SEE IT
For the gals – Watching the men dig themselves into a hole and seeing the ladies hold all the cards to get them out again is great fun. SEE IT
For the occasional audience – It’s a light, fun comedy with tons of great lines you’ll wish you wrote down so you could use them again. SEE IT
For the theater junkie – You love Wilde already. Get ready to love Bedford and his cast. SEE IT