“The Importance of Being Earnest” Dazzles with Verbal and Visual Brilliance at BTG

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“The Importance of Being Earnest” may be the funniest play in the English language and beyond Shakespeare there can be no more quotable playwright than Oscar Wilde but if your grin spread ear to ear is covered by a mask, is there anyone to say that you enjoyed yourself immensely? Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of the comic classic about two Victorian gentlemen, Jack and Algernon, their alter-egos Earnest and Bunbury, and the women they love, Gwendolyn and Cecily, has many moments that give you the fizzy charge of Wilde’s subversive wit tearing down the status quo even as he entertained the hell out of them.

Matt Sullivan & Shawn Fagan
Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

The evening starts on a giddy note with The Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” heard in the pre-show and Shawn Fagan as Algernon lounging luxuriously in a floor-length floral silk robe lecturing his butler Lane (Matt Sullivan who has a magical transformation in the country and thankfully plays both butlers) “I don’t play accurately — anyone can play accurately — but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for life.” We are in good hands with Fagan as he dispenses his cracked wisdom with great elegance and fun all while devouring the tray of cucumber sandwiches. Kudos to the food prop team, I’ve never seen so many sandwiches and muffins consumed in an “Earnest” production.

He is soon joined by his friend Jack, who uses the name Earnest in town, played by Mitchell Winter. If Winter doesn’t have the same mad gleam of delight behind his eyes as the rest of the cast, he offers solid support and great, necessary opposition when needed. He has his eye on Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen (Rebecca Brooksher) who soon arrives with Lady Bracknell in the personage of the great Harriet Harris. Brooksher may be my favorite Wilde player of the evening, her Gwendolen is a delight, all giddy appetite and defiance. Harris sails in and treats all the negotiations with deadly seriousness, you can imagine the society evenings she arranges… and the reason Algernon avoids them so strenuously. It gives her plenty of room to hit the ceiling with her reactions to Earnest’s parentage and her discovery of Miss Prism in the country which she does with power and hilarity.

Harriet Harris
Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

In the country of the second act, we are introduced to the Prism of the redoubtable Corinna May, the flighty Reverend Causable of David Adkins who threatens to take wing under his canonical robes and especially Claire Saunders’ saucer-eyed, ringlet curled Cecily Cardew and our company is complete. Her scene with Fagan and especially her delicate war with Brooksher fought with sugar lumps are as delicious as the frosted dripping tea cake.

The production directed by BTG mainstay, the Pulitzer and Tony-winning playwright David Auburn, past BTG productions that have been favorites of mine are “The Petrified Forest,” “Anna Christie” and “A Delicate Balance.” He is helped immensely by the design team of set designer Bill Clarke, costumes by Hunter Kaczorowski, lighting design by Daniel J. Kotlowitz, and sound design by Scott Killian. Every one of these artists contributes a winning detail that spins this tale forward. From the twelve-foot chaise in the first scene, the velvet suits of purple and teal, the three-foot brimmed sun hat, the floor to ceiling gauzy curtains, bold upholstered furniture, cloud and window projections on the upstage walls to the 60s soundtrack of The Kinks, The Rolling Stones and Deep Purple, it all makes for a swinging mod playground for Wilde’s wit to run free.

Claire Saunders & Rebecca Brooksher
Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

The priceless language is handled expertly and there are moments that touch greatness and will have you barking with laughter. If the third act of reversals and revelations does not quite spin to the heights it could reach yet, it is still a terrific evening with a great deal of the most sublime dialogue and epigrammatic brilliance in the Western canon.

Through 7/10
Limited tickets available at www.berkshiretheatregroup.org

The Cast of Earnest
Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
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