“What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare inquired through the character of Juliet Capulet. Three hundred years later, Oscar Wilde answered the question through his character of Jack Worthing in “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
As both a proper noun and an adjective, the name “Earnest” is the focal point of Wilde’s two-act comedy that is going into its second of three weekends in the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane. It’s a name that elevates one of the play’s principals from the level of a commoner to that of a nobleman in the eyes of the 1890s Victorian aristocracy.
Although this particular offering in what is billed as a “Shakespeare Festival” is not one of the 37 plays in the Bard’s canon, “The Importance of Being Earnest” stylistically channels a number of Shakespearean comedic farces on several levels. The deliberate humor very thinly masks what can be interpreted as a biting critique of British society and its accompanying stuffiness and pretentiousness.
As the literary maverick of his time, Wilde took Shakespeare’s “A Comedy of Errors” to its most ludicrous extreme, via its two main characters — a duo of self-indulgent bachelors living double lives as pampered city boys and landed country gentlemen.
Their ruse eventually falls apart in a comical way but, to quote the title of another Shakespeare comedy, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
As Worthing, James Bartelle is the most convincing male character in the production. When American actors — both men and women — attempt to affect British accents the effort sometimes falls short, especially when the players rush their lines and, consequently, become nearly unintelligible. Bartelle’s diction, pacing and expressiveness was as near to perfection as anyone can hope to attain in this very challenging aspect of acting.
His counterpart, Patrick Bowen, as Algernon Moncrieff, was not quite as adept as Bartelle in putting on the accent at first, but he got better at it as the action progressed and he was definitely the funniest of the characters, a role he played to the hilt.
Clare Moncrief, as the pompous, pretentious windbag Lady Bracknell, stole the show with her spot-on characterization of Victorian society at its stuffiest. Serving as a self-appointed arbiter of propriety and class distinctions, Lady Bracknell was the overstuffed pin cushion into which Wilde stuck the barbs of his disdain for the caste system of his time, and Moncrief played it perfectly.
The two leading ladies, Lyndsay Kimball and Julia DeLois, as Gwendolyn Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, respectively, performed their roles very much in the character of the stations of life they and their class represented: mainly the sense of entitlement that comes with that class. Both were convincing, with Kimball more so, owing to the obvious confidence she had in her ability to deliver her lines slowly and distinctly.
In supporting roles were Jason Carter as Lane the butler; Tracey Collins as Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess; and Danny Bowen as the Rev. Canon Chasuble. All three fulfilled their all-too-brief onstage functions admirably and in character, with credible accents and witty little bon mots that elicited chuckles from the audience.
As the tangled web of the main characters’ double lives unfurls, the progression becomes more humorous, but it’s more a witty type of humor than one that elicits belly laughs. As a delivery system for Wilde’s subtle satire and his obvious contempt for the mores of his puritanical era, the humor admirably serves its intended purpose.
Jessica Podewell’s direction, fine-tuned over weeks of intensive rehearsal, was smooth and polished.
The costumes by Cecile Casey Covert were colorful and very much attuned to the styles of the 1890s. The set design by Mihai Plaiasu was effectively basic with formally set tables, period furniture and a realistic-looking indoor/outdoor backdrop. The lighting and sound design by Martin Sachs achieved maximum effect without going to extremes.
Ticket prices range from $15-$25. Curtain times are Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays and the final Saturday at 1:30 p.m. For information, call (504) 865-5106 or visit www.neworleansshakespeare.org.