“We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.’’ — Oscar Wilde
A lot of what passes for entertainment these days is not very entertaining. And yes, we should all see theater that touches and teaches us, but sometimes it’s therapeutic just to laugh.
And so, just in time, when we need it most, along comes Oscar Wilde’s fabulously ingenious 1895 satire of Victorian manners and morality, The Importance of Being Earnest. And the production at the Aurora in Berkeley is, thank goodness, an amusing delight, thanks to an excellent cast and director Josh Costello.
It’s not very easy to maintain the necessary degree of artifice in a Wilde play to preserve the arch-Victorian atmosphere, yet infuse it with the right dose of tongue-in-cheek, so audiences are comfortable with how silly and laughable it all is.
This riotously smart and witty three-act comedy involves Jack Worthing (first-rate Mohammad Shehata), a somber pillar of the Hertfordshire country community, where he is guardian to Cecily Cardew (charismatic Gianna DiGregorio Rivera), the pretty, 18-year-old granddaughter of the late Thomas Cardew, who found baby Jack in a handbag at Victoria Station and adopted him.
But Jack has a secret double life. For years, he’s pretended to have an irresponsible brother named Earnest who leads a scandalous, troublesome life in London. His fictitious brother’s bad behavior always compels Jack to rush off to London. But really, it is Jack who leads the pleasure-filled life of a libertine in London, where he is known as Earnest.
Jack is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax (talented Anna Ishida), the cousin of his best friend, Algernon Moncrieff, a London gentleman of leisure (terrific Patrick Kelly Jones, The Heir Apparent, Detroit). Jack proposes to Gwendolen, but her formidable mother, Lady Bracknell (marvelous Sharon Lockwood, Temple), refuses to allow the marriage because Jack has no family lineage, except the handbag in which he was discovered. There’s also one other little problem: Gwendolen only wants to marry a man whose name is Earnest, which she says “inspires absolute confidence.”
Algernon also is harboring a secret. He pretends to have an invalid friend named Bunbury, whom he can pretend to visit in the country whenever he wants to avoid an undesirable social obligation in the city.
The machinations of the plot grow more complicated as Algernon meets and immediately falls for Jack’s ward, Cecily. With several more twists to the plot, Cecily’s tutor, Miss Prism (skillful Trish Mulholland, Salome, The Devil’s Disciple) holds the unlikely key to the quartet’s happiness.
The Importance of Being Earnest is sprinkled with Wilde’s wonderful puns, paradoxes, witticisms and epigrams. Many are asides, spoken to the audience and are unrelated to the action of the play. Director (Eureka Day, The Heir Apparent) and announced incoming Aurora artistic director Josh Costello described Wilde’s famous epigrams to me in an opening night interview: “Wilde takes a turn of phrase, and you think you know what will be said, but then the opposite is spoken. And the opposite turns out to be more truthful. There is something so subversive and liberating about that, since what we might ordinarily say becomes the lie, and the opposite becomes true.” For example, Gwendolyn says, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.”
Underlying the hilarious witticisms and boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl plot of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde adds more serious commentaries about Victorian society and its emphasis, first on wealth, then on connections and, a distant third, on character. So, in the end, being named Earnest is the essential thing, rather than possessing the actual trait of earnestness.
The Importance of Being Earnest, with three acts, and two brief intermissions, is playing at the Aurora Theatre through May 19. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit the Aurora online.