Writers Theatre's joyful The Importance of Being Earnest has a dreadful spoiler | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Writers Theatre's joyful The Importance of Being Earnest has a dreadful spoiler 

Just as in Oscar Wilde's time, there are whispers in the audience.

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click to enlarge Rebecca Hurd and Jennifer Latimore

Rebecca Hurd and Jennifer Latimore

Michael Brosilow

The wonderful thing about Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is that it's escapism in its purest form. It makes no grand generalizations about society. The problems are ridiculous. The big fight at the end of Act II is over the consumption of muffins. A professor told me once that the competitive muffin eating symbolized sexual greed, but I think people who try to find that sort of significance in Earnest are looking at it all wrong. The muffin eating, if done correctly, as it's done in Writers Theatre's joyful new production, is there because the word "muffin" is funny, and so is the sight of a grown man cramming several into his mouth at once.

This sort of epic triviality is exactly what we need right now. And Writers mostly pulls it off. The play moves along with wit and style. The actors read their lines as if they were speaking naturally, not reciting epigrams that have been repeated a million times—which is hard to do. The performances are generous: Alex Goodrich and Steve Haggard, as Jack and Algernon, leave plenty of laughs for Jennifer Latimore and Rebecca Hurd, who play Gwendolen and Cecily. (Goodrich and Hurd are especially good.) Shannon Cochran plays Lady Bracknell not as a gorgon but as a hilariously judgmental society matron who wants a good marriage for her daughter, and the character is better for it. Anita Chandwaney, Aaron Todd Douglas, and Ross Lehman make the most of Miss Prism, Dr. Chasuble, and Lane/Merriman. Collette Pollard's sets and Mara Blumenfeld's costumes are just realistic enough not to detract from the complete absurdity of the goings-on. Much of this, of course, is due to the director, Michael Halberstam, who made the wise decision to do a naturalistic production and treat the characters as real people instead of cartoons.

But this Earnest is still rooted in the reality of 2017: two weeks before the play opened, Tom Robson, now a theater historian and associate professor at Millikin University, accused Halberstam, who is also the cofounder and artistic director of Writers, of sexually harassing him verbally and physically during the theater's 2003 production of Crime and Punishment. Halberstam had directed. Robson, then 23, had been the assistant director and dramaturg. Others came forward to corroborate Robson's account of Halberstam's behavior. Writers announced that it was investigating Halberstam, but that he would continue as director of Earnest. Cast and crew members reported a professional atmosphere backstage

There were whispers in the theater the night I saw the play. In 1890s England, Earnest was still performed even after Wilde became a scandal, then a prisoner and an exile. Did people whisper in lobbies then too? Did those whispers come back to them while they were laughing at Wilde's dialogue, the way they do for us? Did they wonder if they could untangle the work from the person who made it? Did they want to? Should we?  v

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