Hector Sanchez Castaneda
The University of California, Santa Barbara’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest has been advertised as the “wittiest play in the English language,” and although the play’s first performance was 120 years ago, the humor and silliness of the play have endured the passage of time quite successfully.
The satire Wilde uses to deal with 19th century aristocrats can easily be converted to match the 21st century’s rich and powerful. The play’s issues with love and marriage are not time-restricted either; I’m sure someone has fallen in love with somebody’s false identity in the past week. Nothing feels outdated, and it’s even plausible to assume that the play’s events could occur in present day England.
Performed in UCSB’s Performing Arts Theater, the set design is one of the most impressive ones I’ve seen. The design truly breathes life into the stage, and the era is represented fantastically. Victorian furniture and architecture are prevalent, and the props give a great final touch to the overall ambiance. Greg Mitchell, the same designer for last quarter’s incredible performance of Middletown: A Play, reprised his role as scenic designer, and will hopefully take the helm once again in the near future. Another outstanding feature of this play is the colorful and extravagant costume design by Anne Bruice. The characters brandished Bruice’s dresses and suits with appropriate pride and opulence. Michael Klaers’s terrific lighting effects also aided in exemplifying the set and costume designs.
When it comes to performance, there was not any lack of talent. Zachary Macias did a good job representing the seemingly honorable, albeit hypocritical protagonist Jack Worthing. Adrian Carter’s enthusiastic performance of the charming bachelor Algernon Moncrieff is memorable, although his exaggerated facial expressions sometimes marred some of his best moments. Quinlan Fitzgerald beautifully portrayed Gwendolen Fairfax, demonstrating great talent in using voice and body motion to display the character’s pretentiousness. Alison Wilson’s performance of the pretty Cecily Cardew was impressive in many ways, and the true nature of the character was clearly represented. However, the show stealer of this play was Rebecca Mason and her portrayal of the intimidating Lady Bracknell. Her thunderous presence outdid most of the others’, and with great tone and movement, her performance was the night’s most memorable.
Other performances worth mentioning are Ian Elliot and Avila Reese’s portrayal of Canon Chausuble and Miss Prism, respectively. Their chemistry resulted in one of the funniest moments of the play, and Elliot’s talent is evident even when taking the part of a minor character.
The best parts of the play were when multiple characters brought their charisma onstage and interacted with each other. Sure, Jack and Algernon’s conversations are enjoyable just as much as Gwendolen and Cecily’s, but put the four of them together and you had better get ready to laugh out loud.
Director Simon Williams did a fair job, although there is a particular aspect that bothered me during the whole play. The stage was square-shaped, and the audience seats covered three sides of said square. This audience structure resulted in a tremendous amount of moments where the actors had their backs facing one side and their faces looking at another. Since facial expressions were a prime component of the comedic affect, I missed multiple laughs because of the three-sided audience decision. The Department of Theater and Dance’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream utilized a four-sided audience structure, but the great physicality and movement of that performance proved to give an enjoyable experience wherever you were seated. In the case of The Importance of Being Earnest, where movement is not an important aspect, I would have preferred the one-sided audience structure that was successfully employed in the production of Middletown: A Play for example.
In the end, this didn’t take away from the excellent writing and performance. If you’re looking for great laughs, please do yourself a favor and go watch this play. Practically every other sentence contains some kind of epigram or pun. Right down to the last line, this play wears the title of “the wittiest play in the English language” with triumph.