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Review: Georgia Shakespeare’s trivial pursuits perfectly capture Oscar Wilde’s “Earnest”

"The Importance of Being Earnest" at Georgia Shakespeare. (Photo by Bill DeLoach)
"The Importance of Being Earnest" at Georgia Shakespeare. (Photo by Bill DeLoach)

“We should treat all the trivial things seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality,” Oscar Wilde famously said about his “exquisitely trivial” play “The Importance of Being Earnest,” at Georgia Shakespeare through August 3. This production captures “Earnest’s” paradoxes — the sense of naughtily playing in very serious rooms — with a light touch and shimmering charm, even as it delivers the play’s very serious and powerful blows.

Angela Balogh Calin’s stripped-down but vivid setting for the action is a Victorian drawing room out of a strange dream: green walls, red chandelier, painted couches and checkerboard floor. It becomes especially Magritte-like, appropriately surreal, when it all doubles as a garden, complete with chairs and table upholstered in AstroTurf.

It’s an unreal place for unreal people. The characters in “Earnest” are not meant to represent real people at all; they’re practically interchangeable. (Could anyone really identify some substantive difference between Gwendolyn and Cecily? Or Algernon and Jack? Or conclude why a particular aphorism is given to one character and not another?)

Their milieu of mannered fussiness, social seasons and dressing for dinner may seem old-fashioned at first glance, but the characters are relentlessly modern, even presciently postmodern, in their unreality. They’re self-consciously vehicles for Wilde himself, and within certain parameters there’s not a lot actors can do with the parts other than dive right in, and this the cast does with abandon.

Caleb Clark as Algernon is a dead ringer for Wilde in early photos — he could easily play the Irish writer in “Gross Indecency” or one of the other biographical plays. Here, he eases into the role with all the curiosity and mischievousness of an overgrown boy at play. He’s terribly earnest about his duplicitousness, and it’s impossible not to be charmed, no matter how many things get broken.

The formality of the language and the emphasis on wit can make the goings-on seem a bit stiff at first. There’s never any question about whether what we’re listening to is something “written.” It is, and it’s difficult to carry off the affect without seeming affected. But things start to click as the misunderstandings and deceptions pile up. Courtney Patterson and Ann Marie Gideon, as Gwendolyn and Cecily, do an especially nice job vacillating between instant friends and sworn sisters for life, then turn sudden enemies.

Lady Bracknell appears in only two acts, but she has the potential to steal the show, and having the character played by a man in drag doubles that potential. There are some nice touches to Mark Cabus’ depiction — the swift, agile swoop onto the stage followed by an elegant landing into an unflinchingly immobile position; the imperious, almost terrifying way he calls an escaping Miss Prism back into the room — but, for better or worse, he never does steal the show. He never even tries to make off with a scene or two. Not that we want something outrageously campy or relentlessly upstaging, but there does seem to be unrealized potential, something too restrained. This is Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, for goodness’ sake.

“Earnest” hauls out nearly all of society’s pretensions and hypocrisies and exposes them to the open air. It’s been called the death blow to late Victorianism, and some of its statements are still surprisingly, even shockingly, radical (listen to Lady Bracknell on education, for instance). There’s clearly power in approaching the serious things with triviality, and Georgia Shakespeare grasps it in this delightful but still scathingly on-target production.

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