David Turrentine and David Blixt in Michigan Shakespeare Festival's "The Importance of Being Earnest." Photo: MSF

Earnest Actors Keep The Farce Authentic

By Bridgette M. Redman

"There are no small roles, only small actors."

Never is this more apparent than in the Michigan Shakespeare Festival's "The Importance of Being Earnest" in which the two butlers, played by Rick Eva and Brandon St. Clair Saunders, have antics that rival the leads in comic effect.

Saunders anticipates every household need, and Eva mimics his masters with all of their silly demands. They're funny, amusing and nearly steal every scene they're in.

Nor is that a light task when the others they share the stage with shine equally brightly. It is a cast that glitters in its gaiety in a fashion that would make Oscar Wilde proud.

Wilde's comedy has enjoyed enduring popularity as a silly story about two society men who each have secret lives to escape the social conventions and obligations of town and country. Jack Worthing (played by Joe Lehman) and Algernon Moncrieff (played by David Blixt) each escape their usual homes by assuming false personalities under which they fall in love with two different women. They both must overcome society's roadblocks and the fickle nature of their own lovers to make it to the altar and the wedded state.

Directed by Janice Blixt, "The Importance of Being Earnest" is played as written, with attention to all the whimsy that Wilde embedded in this 19th Century script. It is farce, and Janice Blixt shows a healthy respect for Wilde and the script by letting it play exactly as written and trusting that the audience doesn't have to be spoon fed its charm or wit.

Even David Turrentine's Lady Bracknell is not forced into the over-the-top cross-dressing exaggeration. Rather, the pure humor of a man playing this over-bearing society woman who is an arbiter of all that is proper is allowed to simply happen. Turrentine shines because he plays the role as a woman, not as a man playing a woman. There is no falsetto or overly mincing movement. Rather, Turrentine's Lady Bracknell is a strong woman who is overbearing and makes the men in her life cower in fear.

David Blixt and Lehman are charming as the two gentlemen who are madly in love despite a fair amount of cynicism over their expected roles in life. Both embrace the absurdities of their roles and the situations the characters find themselves in. David Blixt is particularly delightful in the scene where Lydia Hiller's Cecily Cardew informs him that they got engaged months before they met.

Hiller's Cecily is silly and sweet, with an energy that is completely different from the Ophelia Hiller played in "Hamlet" earlier in the day. Cecily is an airhead who is all sentiment and no sense. She flits. She flitters. Hiller makes the most of her airiness while never making her a clown or making a mockery of the character. Like all the actors in this production, she stays authentic.

Just as David Blixt and Lehman play off each other with great chemistry, so too do Hiller and Rachel Hull in the role of Gwendolyn Fairfax have a great stage relationship whether the sparks are flying between them or they're declaring love for each other.

It is also fun to watch mother-daughter pair as Wendy Katz Hiller plays governess Miss Prism to her daughter's Cecily.

Rounding out the cast is Alan Ball, who is the doddering country minister who is an intellectual most talented at putting his male parishioners to sleep and attracting the attentions of such single women as Miss Prism.

Each actor in this ensemble is committed to letting the script shine for all it is worth. They make choices that support the script and keep the humor at a quick pace. They also adeptly handle the accents while keeping the language clear and easy to understand. For this, they had assistance from dialect specialist Elise Kauzlaric.

Adding to the traditional presentation of the play are Suzanne Young's gorgeous period costumes. She even makes Turrentine look natural in a full Victorian gown. She also clearly worked in tandem and communicated well with scenic designer Jeromy Hopgood, for the set and costumes were of similar colors and hues. In a rare move for the Shakespeare Festival, the play opens and the scenes change with the grand curtain down and Diane Fairchild's purple lights shining upon it. Behind the curtain are the changes that transform the stage from Algernon's townhouse to Jack's garden and then to Jack's parlor.

Under Janice Blixt's light hand, this production is a playful one that speaks to the absurdity and triviality of proper life. The comedy shines most where it is most restrained and becomes a dalliance with pure entertainment and laughter.

REVIEW:

'The Importance of Being Earnest'

Michigan Shakespeare Festival

Baughman Theatre at Potter Center on the campus of Jackson College

2111 Emmons Road, Jackson

2 p.m. July 30, Aug. 2, 3

7:30 p.m. Aug. 7, 9, 15

1 hour, 54 minutes

$31-40

517-796-8600

http://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com

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