Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 30, 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest

Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, MA
through July 14, 2012
by Jarice Hanson

The Williamstown Theater Festival is off to a great start this season with a delightful twist on not only one, but two old chestnuts, re-envisioned through the eyes of director David Hyde Pierce, who has combined Oscar Wilde’s wonderful comedy with the stylized voices of Damon Runyon’s "Guys and Dolls." The send up of high-society satire and gangster mannerisms sounds far-fetched, but the cast embraces the challenge, and Pierce has effectively created a counterpoint of language, comedy and pacing that is loaded with surprises and wit.

Tyne Daly plays Lady Bracknell as a tough, no-nonsense dame, and finds the nuances of Wilde’s language and Runyon’s delivery beautifully. Her relationship with Gwendolyn, played by Amy Spanger, powerfully sporting an “Adelaide-like” delivery, draws out the mother-daughter relationship as well as the reference to social class. Invoking the strongest sense of Victorian manners and music-hall mannerisms are Miss Prism (Marylouise Burke) and Reverend Chasuble (Henry Stram), both audience favorites who invoked an over-the-top (but highly effective) balance to the gangsters who leave the city to come to the country for love and finding true identity.

Director Pierce has also found a way to move the multi-scene Act I quickly through imaginative designs and staging enhanced by Scenic Designer Allen Moyer’s linear sets—moving from left to right as the actors walk from scene to scene while allowing the exposition necessary to set up the laughs in Act I and III. But what really stands out is the language, unchanged from Wilde’s pen, spoken through Runyon’s dialect, and interpreted with intelligence and wit. The result is a delightful way of looking at a pastiche of 120 years of popular culture, mannerisms and morals. "The Importance of Being Earnest" is a theatre gem, and this production, a shining example of artistic creativity.