The Vermont Theatre Company is pleased to present Earnest! A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. This version of Oscar Wilde's wittiest play will be like no other version available, having been lovingly reimagined and modernized by director CC. While the text has been edited some for time and clarity, the material and language of this production of Earnest largely remains the same - but with a twist.
We follow Algernon, the middle class black sheep in a family of successful entrepreneurs, on their lifelong quest to utilize their 23andMe results to cause chaos. Other zany characters include their Lady Augusta Bracknell, who owns a world renowned fashion company, her adopted child, who is a little too interested in the name of Algernon’s best friend, a love interest with an active AO3 fanfiction account, a tutor with a secret past who’s in a torrid love affair with the local priest, and a best friend who gets dragged kicking and screaming along on this Wilde Bunburying adventure.
The production stars Nicole Caron as Jack Worthing, Elliot Vigue as Algernon Moncrieff, Olivia McNeely as Gwendolen Fairfax, Eden Gorst as Cecily Cardew, Geof Dolman as Lady Augusta Bracknell, Aubrey Clowndinst as Professor Prism, Katy Peterson as Dr. Caroline Chasuble, and Patrick Caron as Moulten Merriman/Lane. The show is sponsored by Brattleboro Savings and Loan.
REVIEW by Eli Coughlin Galbraith
When you get right down to it, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet runs on the conceit that the most archaic language can sound natural and modern if its delivery is sufficiently sincere. The 1890s English of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest isn’t so far away from us as Shakespeare, but it’s not modern, either.
I was less than ten minutes into Earnest! at the Hooker-Dunham Theater before I fully forgot that I wasn’t watching a modern show. The lines are largely faithful to the original, but they’re delivered with such energy, verve, and comedic timing that they feel as current as any quippy sitcom — and three times as charming besides.
The cast of Earnest! loves this show, and you can see it in the way they play. There’s a rhythm to Wilde’s comedic work, joke-joke-joke pause: like a waltz around the stage of two insufferably clever people doing their absolute best to annoy each other, or seduce each other, or out-philosophize each other, or some combination of the three. This cast adds extra beats to the dance with physical comedy, movement across the theater and against each other, deeply thoughtful costuming choices, and well-timed significant looks. “I hope you will always look at me just like that,” says Gwendolen to Jack, breathy and smoldering, “especially when there are other people present.”
Then she turns to the audience and gives us a knowing smirk.
Olivia McNeely is a devastatingly powerful Gwendolen, playing opposite Nicole Caron as the haplessly charming Jack. Caron’s performance, along with director CC’s casting, brings out an element I wasn’t expecting: our protagonist is Earnest (he/him) to his friends and fiance in town, and Jack, short for Johanna, she/her, to her family and staff in the countryside. The script’s pitch of a man with a double identity suddenly gains a whole new dimension. In the countryside Johanna wears turtlenecks and (once, awkwardly) a dress; in the city he’s in a smart blazer and tie. Gwendolen is utterly enamored of him as Earnest, and could simply never stomach being married to (shudder!) a Johanna. When she discovers his country side, there’s an added layer to the reveal: she and her mother Lady Bracknell (Geof Dolman) start to stumblingly use she and her and Miss Worthing to refer to our increasingly distressed protagonist.
(Blessedly, this sequence is carried on awkwardness and uncertainty without being marred by homophobia. Gwendolen has no issues marrying a woman, if Jack is indeed one. She’s only dismayed at the thought of marrying someone who isn’t named Earnest.)
By itself, this twist could have made Earnest! focus too much on Jack’s travails at the expense of the rest of the cast. Fortunately there’s plenty of other twists and turns that keep the whole ensemble fresh and engaging. Elliot Vigue and Eden Gorst spin a fast-paced B-plot romance as Algernon and Cecily, with all the carefree giddiness of a young queer couple who never had to know the closet — but maybe never learned how to log off the internet. By contrast our C-plot couple, Professor Prism and Rev. Chasuble, stumble across the stage with the repressed sexual energy of late-in-life butch professionals who’ve been closeted so long they can’t find the door. Katy Peterson and Aubrey Clowndinst are incredible at this, and Clowndinst’s movement direction shines through in their physicality together.
Meanwhile, Patrick Caron’s deadpan performance as Merriman the long-suffering butler is a professional clown show. His comedy act between McNeely’s incensed Gwendolen and Gorst’s petty, sniping Cecily takes the entire scene into new heights of combat absurdity. By contrast Geof Dolman plays Lady Bracknell as straight as a role in drag can be; his Bracknell is a Dame Edna-style figure with flawless comedic timing who simply doesn’t see what’s so funny about all of this.
Not to spoil the chaotic climax, but it involved seven people all moving at once while a flood of texts popped up on the backdrop. I’ll need to go back at least once more to catch everything that happened in that one scene alone. A great strength of this ensemble, especially in the second half, is their ability to switch seamlessly between romantic couples and adversarial pairs and conflicting trios and balancing forces. This is comedy as a team sport. For a “Trivial Comedy”, they’re putting their whole hearts into it.
The sincerity running through the core of this production utterly disarms a longstanding complaint I’ve had with Wilde. Take nothing seriously, his characters admonish us; all the important things in life cannot possibly bear being serious about them. But constant, relentless frivolity can sour into cynicism in a heartbeat, and it can get pretty tiring to watch people try to hurt each other and pretend, by turns, not to bleed.
Earnest! lets us see them hurt a little. Caron walks a masterful tightrope here; Jack pretends to be unaffected, but the pretense is paper-thin. I was deeply moved by the relief Caron showed in the last scene; at last, the lies are done, and what Jack thought was a lie was the truth all along. It’s a terrible thing, he says, but he’s smiling, and it hit me right in my gay little heart. Is there any greater queer joy, than to look back and realize after all the fear and all the guessing, you’ve actually been telling the truth about yourself the whole time?
Earnest! is running at the Hooker-Dunham Theater on April 14th-16th and 21st-23rd. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm. I recommend you see it twice.
April 14-16 & 21-23, 2023
Friday & Saturday - 7:30 pm
Sunday - 3:00 pm
General Admission - $15.00
Students & Seniors - $13.00