Reviewed by: Joe Regan,Jr.
January 16, 2014
The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC under the artistic direction of Michael Kahn, was the recipient of the 2012 Regional Theatre Tony Award. Under his leadership major actors have explored their classical theatrical wings playing in classical roles.
Keith Baxter, the Welsh actor, whose career began when he was cast by Orson Welles in a stage production of “Chimes At Midnight” a part he re-created some years later in Welles’ film, and is best known in this country for his part in the original productions on Broadway of “A Man For All Seasons,” “Sleuth,” and “Corpse” has turned to directing in recent years. Previously he has directed two Oscar Wilde plays for Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, “Lady Windemere’s Fan” and “An Ideal Husband” featuring such stars as Elizabeth Ashley and Dixie Carter. He has returned to the company to direct Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” which he considers “the greatest example of high comedy writing in the English language…every word is perfect.”
It’s quite a challenge to bring inventiveness to this familiar comedy, particularly when we have on film forever the legendary movie directed by Asquith with Dame Edith Evans, Margaret Rutherford, Joan Greenwood, Michael Redgrave, the recent film with Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Rupert Everett and the Stratford Canada/Roundabout production with Brian Bedford and Dana Ivey. Years ago I saw a wonderful production at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles with David Dukes played in repertory with Stoppard‘s “Travesties” which references “Earnest” in its plotline.
Baxter has enticed his Wales country person, the magnificent 81 year old Sian Phillips, to play Lady Bracknell in this production and every word, every phrase, every look of hers is perfection. Last seen on Broadway as Marlene Dietrich, two years ago at Bard she was in Coward’s “Bitter Sweet,“ and she was nominated for an Academy Award for “Goodbye Mr. Chips.“ She is best remembered for her award-winning TV performance in the “I, Claudius” mini-series. It’s an absolute thrill to see her play this dominating woman with amazing pauses and changes in voice timbre. It has become a recent tradition that Bracknell has been played by a man but Baxter believes that one of Wilde’s great talents was his fully dimensional portraits of the women in his plays and there is every bit of proof in Phillips’ performance and the wonderful other actresses in this production. Prism is played by Broadway and APA veteran Patricia Connelly and she is delightfully funny in every scene, especially in her pursuit of Floyd King’s Dr. Chausable.
What’s unusual about this production is that Shakespeare Theatre Company regulars Anthony Roach and Gregory Wooddell are cast as Algernon and Jack and they are of such similar physiques and hair styles and are costumed in the same colors in Act Three, that you are not sure which is which when they make their entrances which makes the final denouement of the play so credible. Add to them Vanessa Morosco as Gwendolen, Jack’s ward, and Katie Fabel as Cecily Cardew, the two women who are determined to marry only a man named “Earnest.” Both actress are superb technicians and are stunningly costumed in the garden scenes and draw every bit of comedy flair out of the witty reversals in their relationship.
Baxter has drawn upon a superior set of designers. Simon Higlett’s sets are gloriously detailed, Robert Perdziola’s costumes are elegant and stylish, the original music is by Kim D. Sherman, and the important wig designer is Paul Huntley. It’s a great production. Whether or not you have even seen the play you should get yourself to Washington DC and see this glorious production of this classic comedy.
The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Lansburgh Theatre until Sunday, March 2nd. Evening performances are Tuesday thru Saturday with matinees on Saturday and Sunday. For more information on the production and ticket availability contact www.ShakespeareTheatre.org