Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is to comedy what Peter Pan is to children’s theater and Hamlet is to tragedy: unsurpassable. This puts a heavy burden on a director, especially a young director. Respect the masterpiece, but find something new, damn it.
Enter Danielle Melendez, unmistakably young and female. For this Lab Series production in the 40-seat upstairs space at the Redhouse Arts Center, she casts better-known, more experienced players in the female roles. This does not mean she’s giving us a feminist Earnest but rather that she gets some of the most effervescent results from sequences that other directors have downplayed. Or possibly misunderstood.
Marguerite Mitchell and Sharon Sorkin are both young women who have amassed impressive credits in the past few years, although not in comedy. The brunette Sorkin here enlivens the very urban Gwendolyn Fairfax, Lady Bracknell’s daughter. In her opening dialogue with Jack Worthing (Colin Hirsch Wilson), she’s notably faster on the uptake than he is. Her counterpart is the rural innocent, Cecily Cardew (Mitchell), who dreams that her ideal man, the evanescent Earnest, has proposed marriage before they actually meet.
In this production their breath-stopping moment comes at the beginning of the third act with the dueling fantasies of the two girls, red-haired Cecily with her peaches-and-cream complexion (but no fool) and sensuous, sumptuous Gwendolyn of the rolling eyes. Cecily might have a slight edge with the laughs, but Gwendolyn’s magnificent eyes send out nuances and innuendos that had previously lain quiet in the text.
Binaifer Dabu, one of the most adroit players in town, might have been remembering Bill Molesky’s almost Tolstoy-esque Lady Bracknell in a 2008 Simply New production, and if she did, she has taken an entirely opposite direction. If Molesky was cool, Dabu is hot.
This helps speed up the final sequence where we find out the secret of pedantic tutor Miss Prism (an excellent Kate Kisselstein) and Reverend Chasuble (Chad Tallon). Dabu is on the top of her form with brilliant lines that mean nothing on the page, such as “A life crowded with incident.”
In one of her few miscalls, director Melendez puts Lady Bracknell at a disadvantage in the first act, the famous cloakroom at Victoria Station dialogue. Melendez places Lady Bracknell and Jack at the farthest points of the set so that they must shout to one another in forbidden understatement. This flattens, “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune . . . “
Male performances matter. Brendan Didio’s crisp delivery works splendidly with Algy’s best lines, but Colin Hirsch Wilson’s overreactions are not Wildean. Donnie Williams provides the best local Lane/Merriman of recent years.
From the looks of Katharine Tarkulich’s costumes and Steven L. Barker’s furniture and props, no expense has been spared in a production reaching no more than 40 persons at a time.
The Redhouse Arts Center, 201 S. West St., wraps its three-production repertory salute to Oscar Wilde this weekend. Performances for The Importance of Being Earnest will run Thursday, Feb. 5, through Saturday, Feb. 7, 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Feb. 8, in the venue’s lab space. Admission is $10.
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde continues with shows on Thursday, Feb. 5, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, Feb. 7, 8 p.m., at the Redhouse’s main stage. Also sharing that stage will be the musical A Man of No Importance, presented on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Feb. 6, 8 p.m.; and Saturday, Feb. 7, 2 p.m.
Admission for Gross Indecency and A Man of No Importance is $25 for Wednesday and Thursday performances, $30 for Friday and Saturday. Tickets for The Importance of Being Earnest are $10. For more information, call 362-2785.