The Importance of Being Earnest

I remember reading Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” years ago and thinking it would be incredibly difficult to stage.

It’s very funny to read, but the characters speak in such long, intricate, perfectly-grammared sentences — how could those lines be delivered in such a way as to convey the sense of them and still be funny?

It’s quite a happy surprise, then, that the Actors’ Repertory Theatre Ensemble’s production of “Earnest,” currently going on at the Castle Theatre in Provo, is so good. Not only do the performers deliver their lines clearly, with perfect diction and great English accents, but they make them funny, too.

The play is more or less a farce, although it is more deliberate and less frantic than your typical farce. Still, it has the basic elements: mistaken identities, the mocking of high society, and a few bits of outrageous physical humor.

The story has Ernest (Matt Morrill) visiting his friend Algernon (Lincoln Hoppe, best known locally for his work with the Garrens Comedy Troupe) at his home in the city. Algernon soon learns that Ernest’s real name is Jack, and that he is known as Jack at his home in the country. He has merely invented the character of Ernest — his fictitious black sheep of a brother — to explain to the folks at home all the trouble he gets into when he visits the city.

Algernon confesses then that he has a similar made-up friend: Bunbury, who is a “permanent invalid” and whose poor health often allows Algernon the opportunity to get out of unpleasant social engagements.

Now the scene has been set. Algernon loves pretending to be someone he’s not (“Bunburying,” he calls it); Jack has an imaginary brother, Ernest, whom his household has never seen; wackiness can only ensue.

And indeed it does. There is literally not a single weak link in the eight-member cast. Everyone plays his or her character with such vigor, such bold dedication, that one is easily swept away from the stone benches of the Castle Theatre into turn-of-the-century English society.

Morrill and Hoppe have one particularly memorable scene in which they eat muffins in the garden. Both have confessed privately that this scene is hardest to keep a straight face in, and indeed, the night I saw it, Morrill’s unintentional spitting of a muffin directly at Hoppe nearly broke them both up.

Also worthy of particular mention is Colleen Baum, who plays the ultra-snobby, ultra-proper, ultra-old Lady Bracknell. While everyone in the play is superficial and snooty, Lady Bracknell is the queen of them all. The thing is, she is at least twice as old as the actress who plays her — and yet Baum’s portrayal is so perfect that you might never know it. That, my friends, is skill.

“Earnest” is certainly a play that demands your attention; however it is so joyously performed that you don’t mind giving it. Despite the occasional complexity of the dialogue, the meaning is always crystal clear (thanks to the excellent delivery), and you can sit back and enjoy yourself.

I was afraid this review would be awkward for me to write because I was friends with three major cast members, and the play I had seen at the same theater the week before, "Love's Labor's Lost," had been awful. What if I had to give my friends a bad review? Oh, did I ever sweat. But the show turned out to be really good, as you can see from the glowing review I gave it, and all was well. Also, the concessions guy gave me a free candy bar, so that helped.