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A CurtainUp Review

The Importance Of Being Earnest
By Amanda Cooper

Richard Willis and Andrew Schwartz
The Aquila Theatre Company is at it again -- yet this time they are leaving Shakespeare alone, and attacking the work of a more contemporary Englishman, Oscar Wilde. The Importance Of Being Earnest is playing at the Baruch Performing Arts Center (a charming college theater down a strangely vast amount of stairs, where cell phones cannot receive signals!), overtaking this overgrown blackbox with highly energized music and a stylishly kitschy set in the style of Absolutely Fabulous! -- not to mention a dynamic and clever cast.

Similar to any period pieces that have received a contemporary overhaul, the language-environment combination takes some getting used to. In this production, there are musical interludes as added quirks that turn out to be great fun, but also give an initial jolt to the viewer. By the end, the audience is cheering along to the lip-sync antics of the cast, curious for more.

The actors, of varying ages and performance styles all struck the varying notes of this fast-paced script with precision and individuality (not to mention convincing British accents).

With its mistaken identities mixed with love, as well as the happy marriage endings The Importance of Being Earnest fits Aquila's affinity for comedies. In this case we have two close friends each of whom has the dirty secret of being a "bunburyist" (a person who has created a fake friend, or brother, or what have you in order to get out of unpleasant social engagements).

For extra laughs, Peter Meineck and Robert Richmond have put the hard-nosed matronly character in drag. Oddly enough, it is this cross-dressing Alex Webb as Lady Bracknell who is the least flamboyant characterization of this production. The actions and facial expressions of the performers generally are almost cartoon-like. Guy Oliver-Watts as the "bunburyist" Algernon has a particularly muppet-like mouth that opens and closes fast and with an oddly semi-circular flourish. Particularly effective in her characterization is Renata Friedman as the repressed Governess Miss Prism is particularly effective and enjoyable to watch as she spews stumbling words.

Though some of the extreme character choices were perplexing (particularly the way Ryan Conarro, as the butler kept treating his tray as a magic eight-ball/shield), the ensemble trusted and committed to the choices, the gestures, the dancing and has found a common ground.

The two and a half hours add up to a composite of extremes -- an extremely 70's living room, extremely tailored and outrageous outfits, extreme gestures and staging, and extreme music (you know, the kind that even if you hate it, stays in your head). The final result is an entertaining show that you laugh both at and with. There is nothing deep or particularly moving about this theater experience -- but who cares? You are watching men in Beau Brummel suits dance around to the original version of "You've Gotta Be Cruel to be Kind!"

The Importance of Being Earnest Written by: Oscar Wilde
Created By: Peter Meineck and Robert Richmond
Directed by: Robert Richmond
Cast: Cameron Blair, Ryan Conarro, Renata Friedman, Guy Oliver-Watts, Andrew Schwartz, Lindsay Rae Taylor, Alex Webb, Richard Willis
Production Designers: Meineck and Richmond
Lighting Designer: David Dunford
Running Time: Two and Half hours, with one intermission
The Baruch Performing Arts Center, 150 East 25th Street, (Lexington/3rd Aves) 212-239-6200
6/21/03-8/03/03; opening 6/29/03
Tuesdays - Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 5PM and 9PM, and Sundays 2PM and 7PM--$45
Reviewed by Amanda Cooper

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