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Like Pepsi, the Aquila Theatre Company's 200-proof contemporary version of The Importance of Being Earnest really hits the spot — the funnybone, that is. This venerable and famously epigrammatic romantic comedy, written in 1895 by critically acclaimed Irish dramatist and world-renowned wit Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and brought to the Triangle on Feb 5 as part of the N.C. State University Center Stage series, will surely claim a prominent place on my 10-best list for 2003.
Rarely has a touring cast — or a local cast, for that matter — invested so much energy and injected so much ingenuity into a series of crisp comic characterizations that turn each role, no matter how small, into a potential scene-stealing performance. Director Robert Richmond not only gets an outstanding performance from each and every cast member, but he also superbly orchestrates the monkey business that ensues when two callow, chronically deceitful British bachelors scheme to marry above themselves.
Guy Oliver-Watts is a scream as financially pinched London blueblood Algernon Moncrieff. Whenever cornered by his London creditors, Algie pretends to go to the country to visit an imaginary invalid friend named Bunbury.
Richard Willis is hilarious as aspiring man about London town John Worthing. A bored country squire, Jack has invented a prodigal younger brother named Ernest to give himself an excuse to journey to London whenever he chooses.
When Jack, pretending to be Ernest, falls for Algie's haughty aristocratic cousin Gwendolen Fairfax (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey), and Algie, also pretending to be Ernest Worthing, is smitten by Jack's beautiful ward Cecily Cardew (Lindsay Rae Taylor), both amorous young gentlemen appear to be about get their comeuppance.
Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey is most amusing as Gwendolen, but Lindsay Rae Taylor very nearly steals the show with her outrageous antics as a, perhaps, demon-possessed Cecily. As traditionally played, Cecily is a bit of a simple, clueless country girl. By giving her a head-twirling darker side, the Aquila Theatre production considerably heightens the hilarity of the entire second act.
Andrew Schwartz is very funny as Algie's acid-tongued manservant Lane, and he doubles delightfully as Jack's confused clergyman, the Rev. Canon Chasuble. Ryan Conarro is likewise highly amusing as Jack's uppity butler Merriman, who keeps his "betters" at bay with a skillfully wielded silver tray.
Renata Friedman does a fine job as Cecily's absent-minded governess Miss Prism. But it is Kenn Sabberton, in drag, who brings down the house with his imperious performance as Gwendolen's disapproving mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell.
Production designers and costume designers Peter Meineck and Robert Richmond and lighting designer David Dunford also do their best with their simple but versatile sets, timeless outfits for the ladies, and timely blackouts enlivened by snippets of contemporary rock music to keep the proceedings unfolding at a brisk comic pace. Beau Brummel, SOHO provides an elegant wardrobe for the men in what has to be one of the finest contemporary interpretations of this wonderfully witty romantic comedy ever to grace a Triangle stage.
The Aquila Theatre Company's first foray into Oscar Wilde country not only received a well-deserved standing ovation at its conclusion. It also sets a high standard for all subsequent traveling or home-grown romantic comedies.