Theater review: 'The Importance of Being Earnest' from Orlando Shakespeare Theater

Here are two truths of comedy: Erudite witticisms retain their humor long after faddish expressions fade away. Oh, and a man in a dress almost always gets laughs.

The beauty of the production of "The Importance of Being Earnest," which is opening Orlando Shakespeare Theater's season, is in the way director Jim Helsinger marries these two notions. The actors play their parts broadly — over-English English accents, wide-eyed grimaces, ridiculous sputtering.

But Oscar Wilde's delicious mix of put-downs, wisecracks and highfalutin nonsense isn't lost among the slapstick. On the contrary, it mostly shines brighter than ever.

Laughing heartily at a delicious line from imperious Lady Bracknell — "35 is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained 35 for years" — one is also laughing at the spectacle of the puffed-up delivery from actor Philip Nolen as the imperious lady.

The Shakes follows the conceit of several productions through the years of casting a man as Lady Bracknell, who oversees the lives of the upper-class youngsters of the late Victorian era who surround her.

Nolen uses the stock comic tricks of man playing a woman — suddenly dropping his voice an octave or two to great effect — but has a delightfully no-nonsense approach that makes him funnier. When he first sweeps onto the stage, it's with an attitude of "yes, I'm a man in a dress — but we're not going to make a fuss about it."

Shannon Michael Wamser is atwitter with love for Lady Bracknell's daughter Gwendolen (Mindy Anders) or apoplectic with erstwhile pal Algernon (Avery Clark). Anders cleverly shows a steely quality that indicates Gwendolen's her mother's daughter.

Clark, who has shown his humorous side at the Shakes in "Midsummer Night's Dream," really lets loose here: quivering lower lip, pleading saucer-shaped eyes. Deanna Gibson completes the young-love quadrangle as dreamy young Cecily.

The broad interpretations once in a while make the characters seem a bit simple, but that's not too far off the mark for Wilde's Shakespearean-like plot of star-crossed lovers, impersonations and mistaken identities to make sense.

Bert Scott's clever scenic design slyly pokes fun at the characters' vanities and pretensions by using vases of peacock feathers, alongside peacock paintings.

Jack A. Smith's colorful costumes carry the theme, putting Algernon in peacock blue. Lady Bracknell's formidable bosom, wrapped in a regal burgundy gown, is, of course, another time-honored comic tradition.

"Earnest" marks Orlando Shakespeare Theater's first production of a Wilde work. With a production this satisfying, it was well worth the wait.

mpalm@tribune.com or 407-420-5038

Theater review

What: 'The Importance of Being Earnest'

Length: 2:30, including 2 intermissions

Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; senior matinees at 2 p.m. Sept. 21 and 28; through Oct. 9

Tickets: $20-$34 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays; $26-$38 on Fridays and Saturdays; $15 at senior matinees

•Call: 407-447-1700

Online: Orlandoshakes.org

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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