by Oscar Wilde
Directed by Jude Kelly
Featuring David Woods & Jon Haynes
Ridiculusmus at Loeb Drama Center, ART
64 Brattle St. Harvard Sq. / (617) 547 - 8300
Through Jan. 14

Reviewed by Will Stackman

The short description of Ridiculusmus' "The Importance of Being Earnest," a slight reduction of Oscar Wilde's most popular play, is too clever by half, a bit like their cognomen, which is derived from a quote from Horace. The comic duo of David Woods and Jon Haynes play all nine characters in the farce, using costume and voice changes which become fragmented as the play picks up pace and the farce heads for its coincidence-filled conclusion. The most obvious laughs result from costume incongruities though Wilde's famous epigrams win their share. Audience members familiar with the play will get the most out of this bravura performance, but probably won't see it as the social satire director Jude Kelly, OBE, and Ridiculusmus hoped to create for their British audience. Kelly is a leader of the avant-garde theatre in London, where political intention often counts as much as aesthetic realization. Americans have always found the antics of Ernest Worthing and Algernon Moncrief risible but distant.

The production is however a solid entertainment even though the joke wears thin from time to time given the necessary hiatuses created by costume and scenery changes. The sight of Lady Bracknell with a stuffed game hen entering to Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyrie" sets the tone for the evening. The only gaffe is when Algernon shows up in the country wearing evening clothes in the afternoon. The considerable humor which results from the pair spending the last third of the action without pants but still wearing spats to facilitate costume changes into their female counterparts is collegiate level at best. The progenitors of their style are the Fringers and the Pythons with a dose of Benny Hill, an essentially mindless form of comedy where momentary laughter is the main goal. This leads to little Cecily being played by six foot shaven headed David Woods galumphing about using the same bad wig he dons to play Ernest(Jack). Haynes is slightly more restrained. Characterization becomes pure stereotype as each play Lady Bracknell in the denouement, using a free-standing version of her Victorian coat and hat for costume.

The set assembled by Zoe Atkinson has a jumble shop air with props kept on shelves at the back. There are anachronistic touches like a fridge hidden in the credenza and a music system which the actors ostensibly--and ostentationally--control using a remote to provide dramatic background. The costumes were apparently a group effort. Woods and Haynes' acting is generally broad, with roots in the music hall, which keeps the focus on the trivial, certainly the author's original intent. Wilde would have been amused, but probably critical at the overall crassness of the action. One assumes this visit to Cambridge MA is preparatory to an American tour, though no future dates this side of the pond have been announced.

This play has survived for more than a century not because of its deep analysis of Victorian mores, but its universal silliness. "The Importance of Being Earnest" is first and foremost farce, focusing on human fallibility, which comic writers have been puncturing for at least 2500 years. Three earlier works by Wilde, "A Woman of No Importance," "An Ideal Husband," and "Lady Windemere's Fan," which hadn't proved economically successful, attempted to display his social criticism in the guise of drawing room comedy. In "...Earnest" he moves beyond this form, adapting a lighter tone, like that which had been employed by writers such as W.S.Gilbert, to create an almost Absurdist farce where misrule reigns. Wilde's departure from the scene due to scandal left comedy with social intent to the next great British playwright, erstwhile critic Bernard Shaw, whose first effort started the farce of the chocolate soldier in "Arms and the Man."

The next effort by the ART will be Racine's political thriller "Britannicus" directed by artistic director, Robert Woodruff, who's departure at the end of this season has just been announced. He's managed to keep founder Robert Brustein's slogan, "No More Masterpieces!" as a cornerstone of the now-dominished company's efforts. Perhaps a new leader will have a fresh idea and fewer associates from the academic avant-garde.

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