Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Importance of Being Earnest at Lakewood

Éclat, élan, and earnest elegance
by Michael Dresdner

The cast                                                                                                          Photo by Dean Lapin                                  
The Importance of Being Earnest, which opened last night at Lakewood Playhouse, is undoubtedly the best of Oscar Wilde’s biting satires. It is, by any reckoning, an outstanding and completely enjoyable play to watch; flawlessly written, hilarious, and just dripping with those questionable British values Wilde saw as the underbelly of Victorian society, and skewered mercilessly.

I adore this play so much that I watch or read some iteration of it several times each year, both to bolster my own moral turpitude and to remind myself to always keep a sharp tongue in my head.

Or is that civil?

Whatever. The point is that a play of such perfection demands a director and cast equal to its brilliance. That is precisely what director Marilyn Bennett and her superb cast have given to us lucky Lakewood Playhouse patrons; a shiny, perfect apple of a comedy just bursting with juicy delight.

Ah, yes; you need a short synopsis, right? Trust me, it’s the amazing characters and gleefully funny dialog that makes this play, not the plot, but here goes.

Two elegant bachelor pals discover that they both engage in elaborate fictions to allow them to escape societal demands and instead pursue pleasure. They both pine for well-born young ladies, and thanks in part an inexplicable allure of the name, both insist they are called Ernest.

There are some serious obstacles, beyond the obvious fact that neither is actually named Ernest. One yearns for the cousin of the other, who is saddled with a gorgon of a mother blocking the way because of the suitor’s lack of any apparent parentage. The other yearns for the young, pretty ward of the first, but unless both are happily paired, neither will be. A lost cigarette case, a lost satchel, a lost novel, a lost baby, and a once careless former nursemaid help make a complete scramble of this Mexican standoff, but don’t worry. At the end, all is resolved in a comically unlikely manner, and everyone ends up happy.

Now for the good stuff; the lead actors.

The Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax (Deya Ozburn) is the daughter of Lady Bracknell, the inamorata of John Worthing (Bryan K. Bender), and the cousin of Algernon Moncrieff (Andrew Kittrell), who in turn pines for Worthing’s ward, Cecily Cardew (Cassie Jo Fastabend).

Ladies first, gentlemen!

Ozburn is amazing, adroitly donning the imperious, duplicitous mantle of Gwendolen with flawless timing, an unerring balance of coy sweetness and cutting innuendo, and a set of postures and mannerisms that make her the very best Gwendolen I’ve ever seen, on stage or screen. It was an absolutely perfect performance.

Did you catch all that? Good, because I am about to repeat exactly the same thing three more times, for Fastabend’s Cecily, Kittrell’s Algernon, and Bender’s John Worthing. Each actor crafted the epitome of Wilde’s characters with the same flawless timing, balance, delivery, and physical mannerisms.

Fastabend (L) and Ozburn spy on a seated Kittrell                 photo by Dean Lapin
Fastabend gave us a Cecily bursting with both kittenish enthusiasm and womanly wiles, her sweet innocence hiding the razor sharp claws of cutting verbal retort. Kittrell was a joy to watch as the suave, slightly foppish, thoroughly hedonistic Algernon. And last, though anything but least, was Bender, an actor who has consistently created some of the best performances we’ve seen on these local stages (Mozart, Benedick, Macbeth). His John Worthing was simply perfect; the ideal balance of refined, responsible landowner, and earnest, love-struck suitor.

The rest of the cast, Lady Bracknell (Syra Beth Puett), Rev. Chausuble (Aaron J. Schmookler), the butler, Merriman (Tony Onorati), manservant Lane (Michael Sandner), Miss Prism (Lee Ryan) and the housemaid, Felicity (Laura Shearer) are also quite good and definitely hold their own, but the leads set the bar impossibly high, and to be honest, those four love-struck leads both steal and make this show.  

It is a credit to both director and cast that every word, every nuance, and every bitingly funny line was crisp, clear, and perfectly understandable. That should be taken for granted, but becomes a problem surprisingly often. The director’s pacing was so wonderful that the time flew by, and as it should be, we were left wanting more.

Let’s not forget the splendid costumes by the always excellent Alex Lewingon, a cleverly simple set by Robin Dean, Larry Hagerman, and Hally Phillips, lighting by Alex Smith, sound by John Burton, and props by Patrick Casados. And, because they invisibly keep things running like a well-oiled machine, a nod to the stage manager, Kali Raisi.

Even the seating deserves an honorable mention. Lakewood is partway through the process of replacing the seats in the entire theatre, and we had the good fortune to sit in the new ones. They are sinfully luxurious and unjustifiably comfortable. Patron sponsorship is helping to pay for them, so we dutifully “bought” a seat, which will now sport a plaque with our august names engraved on it. Fairly few seats are left unsponsored, so if you want to be a theater immortal, talk to the box office.

The Importance of Being Earnest is the final play of the season, and I can think of no better way to go out in a blaze of glory than with a production that is so superb, so funny, and so thoroughly delightful. Go see it; I can confidently guarantee you an evening of pure, unadulterated pleasure. 

The Importance of Being Earnest
June 14th to July 14th, 2013
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Laramie Project at TLT

Tolerance  is not enough
by Michael Dresdner

Photo by Galen Wicks 
“There are stories we love to tell, and there are stories we have to tell.”

That’s what actor Mark Peterson wrote in lieu of his bio in the playbill for The Laramie Project at Tacoma Little Theatre, and as is often the case with Mark, he aptly summed up just why this play is and should be on the TLT stage. 

The Laramie Project surrounds the murder and torture of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten and left to die tied to a fence outside Laramie in 1998. However, that is only a small part of the very real story this play tells.

The writers, Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project, went to Laramie and conducted hundreds of interviews of the people there. With that they crafted not a slanted piece of propaganda or a shock tale, but rather an astonishingly even-handed revelation of what really happened and how the locals responded in both words and actions. It is that very honesty and lack of bias that makes this play so powerful.

Make no mistake; it is powerful. It’s the sort of theatre that does its job; to bring you to a very real place that you have not been before by taking you inside the minds of those who witnessed reality. For that reason alone it is well worth seeing.

Of course, if you are going to experience this, and you should, thank your lucky stars if you can see it with a cast of this caliber. Director Brie Yost deserves the accolades for that. Her genius began with assembling the ideal cast, then continued as she led them to create true éclat.

Jen Aylsworth, Russ Coffey, Mike Cooper, Rachel Fitzgerald, Marty Mackenzie, Jefri Peters, Mark Peterson, Tiffani Pike, and Jeremy Thompson each took on an average of ten roles apiece, flipping effortlessly between wildly divergent characters. They did it, to an actor, flawlessly. I could endlessly call out exceptional scenes for each and every one of them. Instead, I’ll just say this is as fine an ensemble cast as one can imagine.

What also comes across is the distinct feeling that the cast has bonded with one another well beyond the normal realm of what a production requires. Perhaps because of that, they adroitly become the close-knit Tectonic Theater Project, then become the varied and sundry Laramie denizens, all with gratifying proficiency.

Rounding out the experience was the support of an equally fine production and design staff. Sets are by Lex Gernon, costumes and props by Jeffery Weaver, lighting by Niclas R. Olson, and the stage manager is Bethany Bevier.

Don’t be put off by what sounds like a depressing subject. The Laramie Project is, in spite of its general subject matter, a thoroughly moving theatre experience. Go see it, for this is a show whose seats should be filled every night. Yes, Tacoma Little Theatre deserves your support for making this available, but far more than that, as a living, breathing human, you deserve to experience this sort of emotional fulfillment.

The Laramie Project
June 7 to June 23, 2013
Tacoma Little Theatre

For Alec Clayton's take on this play, make sure you read the review at his blog: