Although translating a classic play into a new context can be as uninspired as a game of dress-up, Tipping Point Theatre’s exceptional take on The Importance of Being Earnest is no such production. Quite possibly the most famous play by timeless wit Oscar Wilde, this intentionally frivolous love story is made comic by its tangled introduction of pseudonym and mischief. As directed by Julia Glander, the current production is transported into another era in an interpretation that simultaneously honors the playwright’s purpose and exceeds the viewer’s expectations.
This incarnation is refashioned from the late nineteenth century text into a Roaring ‘20s splash of sublime excess and frippery, a choice that plugs directly into the play’s obsession with triviality. From scenic designer Monika Essen’s ornate art deco details to Quintessa Gallinat’s perpetually peppy sound design to the beautiful lines and smart seasonal coordination of Christianne Meyers’s costumes, the look and sound is pure Jazz Age decadence. The production is presented in two acts with a single intermission, and although the words are Wilde’s, the unique perspective is Glander’s. Her bold vision has the characters routinely shattering the fourth wall — in actuality, every wall, as the production is staged in the round — and directly engaging with the audience, providing a multitude of unexpected line readings and hilarious creative moments. Characters move dynamically on and around the circular playing area, a lighting challenge ably met by designer Joel Klain, and properties by Beth Duey broadcast opulence while maintaining a clean sparseness that suits the free-wheeling staging. The story of assumed identities and their attendant mixups sails through this fully realized filter, but the storytelling itself is no less deserving of attention here.
The first act takes place in the heart of London, where Algernon Moncrieff (Peter C. Prouty) and his old friend John Worthing (James R. Kuhl) commit the expository equivalent of winding up an enormous plot catapult. First comes the painstakingly established matter of the identity of “Ernest”: he’s John’s invented-brother alter ego, who gets in “trouble” every time John needs to let loose in the city. The difference between Kuhl’s buttoned-up John and his supposedly wild Ernest is negligible; this rose by any other name proves to be just as proper and tightly wound. Algernon’s lackadaisical egotism may be better suited for this line of deception, as Prouty unabashedly revels in the consequence-free liberty of his own longstanding get-out-of-jail-free fabrication. Soon enough, though, John falls into a trap of his own making: he wants to marry the forthright Gwendolen (Hallie B. Bard), and she jumps at the chance…to marry a man named Ernest. (As the saying goes, whoops.) His problems are further confounded by the titanic disapproval of Gwendolen’s mother, a splendid turn by Terry Heck, who juggles a baffling moral compass and near-audible disgust to spare. The play’s deliberate dismissal of rules and expectations speaks to the advantages of those few atop the pecking order, and this production nails the characters’ devil-may-care privilege with dialect and deportment coaching (by Melynee Saunders Warren and Nira Pullin, respectively) that makes their ingrained propriety feel truly innate.
The second act finds the characters in the restorative garden setting of John’s country home, where the first act’s catapult swiftly and hugely detonates. Crafty Algernon takes it upon himself to call at the estate and charm John’s woefully young ward, Cecily (Christina L. Flynn), all in the conveniently established guise of Ernest. The other characters arrive in short order, breeding convoluted but not cluttered spates of misunderstandings: one scene finds Gwendolen and Cecily, believing themselves to be engaged to a single Ernest, fairly killing each other with protracted kindness — a pursuit at which Bard and Flynn are delightfully, incomparably matched. The gleeful preposterousness requires every last one of its characters to untangle, all the way to the studiously daft tutor Miss Prism (Ruth Crawford) and the placidly amenable reverend (Hugh Maguire). Even Brian P. Sage’s performance as two different butlers molds a rash of nonspecifically droll mannerisms into a perfect understatement about the interchangeable nature of the lower crust.
It doesn’t take a Wilde scholar to grasp that this Importance is really something else — take it from this reviewer, who knows the writer’s work but had no prior firsthand experience with this specific play. Every component part, from the knowing winks at audience members to the period-perfect irreverent independence, works seamlessly with the others and reinforces the archly quotable text at its core. This ebullient production is a credit to its source, a lively comedy with appeal for viewers who thrive on the classics, as well as for those who like their classics shaken up.