Joe Monroe, Marc McHone, Bailey Preston & Annie Bulliet in It’s Earnest, Y’All. Photo: Keith Waits
It’s Earnest, Y’all!
Adapted from The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde
Written in 1895
Kentuckianified by the cast and director
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
I’m not sure exactly what to make of “Kentuckianified” as a creative credit in this production. Is it satirical? Ironic? Pejorative? I take it as a good sign if it provokes that much thought.
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the greatest English language plays but it, of course, seems very British. British enough that it is difficult to imagine changing the location or period, which is exactly what Martin French and his ensemble do here. This Earnest is set in contemporary Louisville and New Albany and works surprisingly well. Many geographical and cultural reference are updatesd (cucumber sandwiches become benedictine) but otherwise the dialogue is largely the same and the plot has barely changed at all.
Earnest Worthing (Joe Monroe) and Algernon Moncrief (Marc McHone) open the play talking about names, Bunburying, and Earnest’s intention to propose to Gwendolyn Fairfax (Bailey Preston), Algernon’s cousin. But her snobby socialite step-mother Mrs. Bracknell (Piper Shands) stands in the way.
Yet, in the country – New Albany – Earnest is known by his real name of Jack Worthing to his ward, Cecily Cardew (Annie Bulliet), her Governess, Miss Prism (Janice Walter) and the local clergy Dr. Chausible (Sean Childress).
There is no improving Wilde’s writing, especially a play that has been copied ad infinitum for over 100 years, and for the most part the cast plays these characters as written. Setting it in Kentuckiana frees them from the burden of attempting British dialects and removes any distance Victorian period trappings might impose for the audience, although players this good would probably accomplish that even in a period setting.
More importantly, dropping that veneer is an opportunity to hear the expression of Victorian social morays in a contemporary context and they fit today’s world surprisingly well. I found Piper Shank’s Mrs. Bracknell to be the clearest illustration of this point. Instead of the elongated sentences and stretched out vowels of the Victorian grand dame Shank captures with authority the clipped, terse tones of the modern status-conscious woman, showing the insecurity behind the judgment and giving Bracknell’s hypocrisy a foundation that transcends time.
Bailey Preston and Annie Bulliett are adroit as Gwendolyn and Cecily, and their extended scene together in act two is a study in capriciousness and the wearing of masks that is still one of the most insightful commentaries on how women are perceived by society. This may be the best work I have seen from Preston, who gives Gwendolyn an appropriate arch and cutting edge, and Bulliet makes Cecily a barefoot nymphet that is risky but well-managed.
Joe Monroe is cast against type here, but uses his easy-going charm and sly wit to create an entirely modern protagonist. The arrogance in the character can sit uneasily on him, but Monroe has a gift for underplaying and sarcastic asides that pull away from the traditional approach to the play. In this instance that seems a good thing. Marc McHone hews closer to tradition in his read on Algernon, perfectly pacing his dialogue and delivering it with a narcissistic twinge.
Wilde’s writing is both demanding and highly rewarding for actors, and Janice Walter and Sean Childress also relish their roles with a more traditional take. Yet it is interesting to me that, again, Walter is looser, not playing the dialogue as deliberately while Childress would fit right into a Victorian setting. It feel as if director French was intentionally striking a balance between the original period and his chosen contemporary setting, with each of the three couples divided between them. Each individual performance also straddles that divide – Preston’s frank expression of sexual attraction is funnier for interrupting her precise delivery of the dialogue – so it can hardly seem random.
French is fond of site specific productions, and he comes a cropper with The Parish House of St. Paul’s. The play opens and closes in a parlor that is just right, and the audience is escorted to the Parish House Garden for the scenes set at Jack’s country house. The moderate temperatures, fading sunlight, and sound of birds singing were perfect. This was the second production in a week that used nature for a setting – the other being three witches shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Louisville Nature Center – a possible trend in highly effective production design using existing circumstances. An impressive cost ratio versus impact.
As with any good comedy of manners, the characters are impossibly shallow, the better to exercise their selfish acts and acid wit, but Wilde’s writing has always been engaging enough to pull the audience in, and it not only survives the impertinence of placing it in 2023 Kentuckiana but benefits from it. Instead of period curio, It’s Earnest, Y’All proves that The Importance of Being Earnest can be relevant to the current state of affairs. Whatever progress we have made, humanity perhaps hasn’t changed all that much, especially when it comes class and privilege.
Featuring Jordan Aiken, Annie Bulliet, Sean Childress, Marc McHone, Joe Monroe, Todd Padgett, Bailey Preston, & Janice Walter
It’s Earnest, Y’all!
May 19 – 21, 26 – 28, 2023
The Chamber Theatre
Parish House of St. Paul’s
1015 E Main St.
New Albany, IN 47150
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.