BLUFFDALE — The short version of this review is that I liked the Bluffdale Arts Advisory Board’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
And now, I shall, do as Algernon requests and “produce [my] explanation,” even if it is a little “improbable.” Bluffdale’s production takes place on a scenic outdoor stage in the middle of a park, and while chairs were provided, I was glad to be among those who had brought their own camping chair. The whole performance was a great community event with free popcorn and snow cones, kids able to run freely in the park behind the audience, and a warm summer evening to sit and unwind with. The show tied in the community feel with the presence of the mayor and a musical underscoring from local composer Kryssi Heckman. Director Kelsha Peterson invites the audience to have a “brief reprieve from the intensity of the world today and indulge in a little triviality.” It was just that.
Well, it was mostly just that. The show’s late start time of 8:00 PM was to counter the setting sun and not have audience members blinded for several minutes at at time. However, the show itself ran until 10:40 PM. In that sense, it was more than just a little triviality. One publisher’s website projects a 95 minute run time, and this was solidly an hour longer. Anyone who has read my reviews about A Year With Frog and Toad or School of Rock knows that I prefer a fast start and a continuing perky pace. That was not the case here, but that is my only major complaint about the show.
The Importance of Being Earnest is such a wonderfully quotable and witty show that it is hard to not enjoy it. The play begins with two men, Jack (played by Colin Baker) and Algernon (played by Jonah Elsberry) discussing phony people they have created to give them excuses for leaving society on short notice. Jack’s non-existent troublesome brother “Earnest” gives him leave to pursue courtship of socially elite Gwendolyn Fairfax (played by Kat Chevrier) while Algernon’s feigned concern for a make-believe invalid called Bunbury allows him to get into all sorts of scrapes. Baker and Elsberry were able to stretch into their characters and relationship by the end of the play, but the start of the play included so many pauses for dramatic effect that it undercut much of the humor and timing that keeps the play flowing. Elsberry played Algernon as intoxicatingly smarmy, which was difficult to like, but impossible to not enjoy.
Baker’s portrayal of Jack was akin to Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, where much of the fun in his character comes at his expense rather than at his creation. Jack was the clear straight man, and so many of the jokes in the play landed because of Baker’s reactions to them — not an easy task, but one which he performed well. His on stage chemistry with Chevrier was tepid, however. Chevrier chose to play Gwendolyn as cold to Jack right up until the moment when she has to break up with him, which revealed her first on-stage smiles. She, like all of the characters, seemed to be thinking hard through every moment of the show, rather than reacting spontaneously. I do not think that was weak acting as much as it was a director failing to push the pace of a comedy and help characters to be reactive. There were some genuinely lovely flashes in moments where characters forgot lines, stumbled on stage or had late entrances. Chevrier seemed to come back to life and enjoy the moment.
Much of what I said about Chevrier applies to the other cast members as well. Lady Bracknell (played by Laura Garner) was poised and intentional in her language, but only seemed to fully be engaging with the fun of the character in moments that the pace quickened or quick thinking was required. Victoria Barlow’s portrayal of young Cecily Cardew had its charm in the scenes with the most tension such as the fight between Cecily and Gwendolyn produced real characterization. However, there were recurring bits that just did not work. One example was that her butler, Merriman, was ironically, moving as slowly as possible across the stage, and would pull out an ear horn when Cecily spoke to him. However, Barlow seemed to not get a decibel louder when the ear horn came out, and the bit fell flat.
I was impressed with the sets, costumes, props and other scenic elements put together by the Garner and Brady families. Maybe it was the cool summer evening, but I thought the experience of watching the production was as good as any I have seen of The Importance of Being Earnest. It is not a spectacle-heavy show, but the presentation of the play had all the decorum that a comedy of manners requires.
While some of my criticisms may seem heavy handed, particularly for a community theater production, I really walk away from The Importance of Being Earnest amused and reprieved. It could, and should, have been almost an hour quicker — a problem that falls at the feet of the director. That said, I went to the show hoping to have a nice evening watching a show in the park, and it was exactly that. My suggestion is to stop binging your favorite Netflix show for an evening, let your kids eat free snow cones only to fall asleep on your shoulder, and enjoy a whimsical play in the park.