Entertainment » Theatre

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Apr 25, 2019

The day may come when "The Importance of Being Earnest" is no longer funny, but we're definitely not there yet.

In fact, Oscar Wilde's timeless comedy of timely Victorian pettiness almost always feels at least a little topical.

After all, this is a story in which the most unnecessary of lies provokes almost unswerving devotion to untruth. Meanwhile, the entire rest of the world of the show seems to take everything else at even the flimsiest face value.

In spite of this, Josh Costello, director of this deeply idiosyncratic production at Aurora Theater in Berkeley, probably didn't mean for "Earnest" to come off as any sort of contemporary polemic. That would really bring down the party.

For the sake of anyone who skipped the reading assignment, "Earnest" is all about Jack (Mohammad Shehata), a well-to-do country gentleman who for reasons all his own has been telling people his name is Earnest, posing as his own fictional younger brother.

Eventually, passively aggressively laidback guy pal Algernon (Patrick Kelly Jones) gets tipped off to his secret and decides to try the same trick himself. Because what could possibly go right?

Whereas most of Wilde's plays had an eye on graver matters, "Earnest" is almost exhaustingly frivolous. If you took scissors to the script and removed every line that is not a sardonic quip, the result would be shorter than the cocktail menu at a number of nearby eateries.

The play has a natural rhythm that's quick and easy to learn: somebody says something innocuous, and then the next person says the most irreverent thing possible in response.

It becomes easy to guess the next retort, but not in a way that makes the show feel trite; it's more akin to the pleasure of anticipating a rhyme in good lyrics.

Shehata puts in maybe the single most oddball performance in the company's history. Somehow when it comes to line delivery he's mastered a perfect hybrid of proper diction and borderline gibberish.

As the play goes on it sounds increasingly like he's forcing every syllable out via some sort of unseen Heimlich maneuver. The closer to the climax, the more animated he becomes until eventually, the power of his voice seems ready to push him bodily up into the atmosphere.

The result is almost baffling, but at least fascinating to watch. Shehata also several times during the shenanigans look as if he's having trouble keeping a straight face. Of course, so is the audience, but for us, it's not a professional problem.

Jones, on the other hand, seems so comfortable playing archly unserious Algie that it's entirely possible someday his ghost might still be running these same lines in the theater late at night. The part seems like a natural function for him, smooth as silk and bottomlessly enjoyable.

As the action mounts the pair of ineligible bachelors end up in a fairly standard madcap comedy of engagements, in which they both have to maintain the flimsy ruse of being called "Earnest." Things like this make you think it's really a shame the Victorians didn't have reality TV, they would have done wonders for the genre.

Gianna DiGregoria Rivera steps into the second act as Jack's aggressively precocious ward Cecily and introduces herself by spritzing the audience with a watering can while displaying the world's most perfectly tranquil expression. Perfect.

This Aurora production does wrestle with some seemingly weird mechanics throughout. For example, actors are CONSTANTLY darting from one corner of the stage to another to another in a box-like circuit, as if they were running relays in a strange contact sport.

There is the suggestion in the third act that overwrought blocking is supposed to be a joke in itself, but it's never really clear.

This feeling of (pardon the phrase) staginess seems to be an extension of the show itself, with all of its self-conscious cleverness and indulgent contrivances, but the gag never quite lands.

Still, it's hard to imagine what kind of grumpy pants you'd have to be not to have fun at a show like this, even in spite of its oddities.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" runs through May 19 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St. in Berkeley. For tickets and information, call 510-843-4822 or visit AuroraTheatre.org

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