SPRINGVILLE — The Little Brown Theatre in Springville is a new theatre that is exactly what it sounds like: a delightfully tiny space that was created out of a bookstore on Main Street. It is one of the most intimate spaces that I have ever been in, seating only around 50-70 patrons. But this was a great location for the staging of Oscar Wilde’s classic The Importance of Being Earnest.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Earnest, it centers around two good friends who are centered in London in the late 1800’s. It has many romantic elements, and yet at the same time, a number of witty and farcical elements as well. The two gentlemen, Jack and Algernon, end up at Jack’s country estate trying to woo their respective loves, Gwendolyn and Cecily. However, because of certain circumstances they go through some quite farcical lover’s quarrels and relationship ups and downs.
One of the interesting aspects of performing this particular play in this particular place is the intimacy that the audience feels with the characters due to the closeness among audience members. Director Dana Anquoe had the stage set up in a thrust style with the audience on three sides of the stage. This meant that the audience members were right on top of the actors and the actors exited through the audience. It was quite an exciting experience feeling that close to all of the action, especially during awkward wooing scenes or comically tense interrogation scenes. As an audience member, I was drawn more into the show simply because there was nowhere else to go.
However, the actors also made it easy to get into the show. Jack (Andrew Whittaker) and Algernon (Eric Ramaekers) were wonderful as the two gentlemen. Their characters were in many ways polar opposites of each other and it lent variety to the scenes. Whittaker brought a great neuroticism to Jack that made his wooing seem terribly awkward in the best way possible. On the other end of the scale, Ramaekers portrayed Algernon as being so nonchalant that his wooing seemed almost sly and greasy, yet at the same time sweet. And of course, when the two go head to head with each other it makes for a clashing of personalities that is fun to watch. One of my favorite scenes was the infamous muffin scene, and I feel that the actors really found ways to add a little spice to their gentleman’s quarrel, continually finding new barbs to use against their muffin stealing opponent. Both actors had a wonderful sense of comedic timing that made this scene work on many levels. One minor concern, however, was that occasionally Ramaekers would lose his diction and that made it difficult to understand his lines. This may have come from the choice to be nonchalant, but I did lose a few of the jokes because the words got a little crammed together.
Obviously, I can’t talk about the men in the relationship with mentioning the beautiful women that drove them to their silly actions. Gwendolyn (Alyssa Jeanne Christensen) and Cecily (Lindsay Fairbanks) had a relationship very similar to Jack and Algernon in their use of opposites. Christensen delivered a performance of Gwendolyn that made her out to be a headstrong woman, but at the same time, kind of a wonderfully spoiled city girl. And Fairbanks presented a Cecily that was still headstrong, but more of a romantic and a country girl. These two have a roller coaster of a relationship where sometimes they’re friends and sometimes they want to destroy each other. I think my favorite scene of theirs has to be when they first meet each other and realize that something is amiss. The two actors did a marvelous job of justifying the multiple switches between being chums and being enemies.
The rest of the ensemble created a great support for the main storyline. The servants (Amanda Oliver and Kenneth Norris) were strong in their conniving and their disdain, which added some great depth to what would otherwise be fairly small roles. Lady Bracknell (Sherri Webb) was a force to be reckoned with and carried a stage presence that was able to grab my attention from the moments before she even stepped on stage. Miss Prism and Mr. Chausible (M’liss Tolman and Jamie Gritton) created a very youthful love story. My one criticism is that this subplot was sometimes a little over the top and started drifting into a different, less grounded, acting style, which made it stick out a little from the rest of the play. As a standalone scene it would have been fine, but because of some acting differences, it sometimes made it feel as if it were disconnected from the show as a whole.
The actors also had a fairly good handle on the language. To be fair, while the language is not as difficult as maybe a Shakespeare or a classic Greek play, there is still a barrier that comes from the differences in speaking. But most of the lines were delivered in a way that the meaning was clear to the audience. The accents weren’t always the best, but they were passable. To top it off, any failings in delivery or accent were more than made up for by the strength of the original script. The Importance of Being Earnest is a great show for actors and directors with some, but not necessarily a vast amount of experience. The script is good enough that it can support the actors when they flounder a little.
The overall direction of the show is to be commended. Playing on a thrust stage is great for intimacy, but is horrible for sightlines. Yet Anquoe was usually able to block the scenes in a way that kept the actors visible to the majority of the audience. Every once in a while there would be a scene that became a little stagnant (usually due to the actors sitting for long periods of time) and this would cause one or two sides of the audience to be unable to see some of the actors, but this was the exception rather than the rule. There were a few scenes that could have used a little more work getting the actors to dig a little deeper or to pick up on the punch-lines a little better, but the majority of the show was quite strong. One confusion that I did have involved the audience; at times it felt as if the characters were referencing and acknowledging the audience and other times not. It was just a little unclear.
The set (designed by Eric Ramaekers and M’liss Tolman) and the costumes (Carol Fairbanks) were very well done. Considering the community level atmosphere of this production, the painting and construction of the scenery was better than I would have expected. The costumes were also above average for this level of work. They weren’t perfect, but they were very well done for the provided budget, which must have been small.
Overall, this was a strong community production. It’s by no means a professional production, but it’s a strong script and the performances by the actors were entertaining. The evening I attended, the cast had a warm reaction from the audience, and I had a pleasant evening. I would say that, while you may see a better version at some point in your life, this theater and this production is worth checking out and worth supporting. So I would say go see it, before they eat all of the muffins.