The Importance of Being Authentic

The forecast was for a wintry mix: maybe snow, maybe sleet, and since it’s the South, most likely rain. Cold rain.

Nonetheless I pulled on a coat last weekend and headed up the road to Hapeville, where the venerable Academy Theatre has pulled off the impossible and built a new theatre for themselves on Main Street. It’s a terrific space and I hope to report on their journey in a future post; I certainly plan to go back now that Academy has such a worthy home.

But the show I went to see was not presented by Academy but by Aris, whose work I’ve seen and enjoyed before, most notably in a remarkably brisk and joyous staged reading of ‘Ulysses’ several years ago. Aris was founded back in 2013 and their mission is ‘to bring the theatrical and literary traditions, mythology and storytelling from and about Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England to Atlanta’; they are committed to ‘breathing fresh life into timeless classics, as well as introducing our audience to the work of new and emerging contemporary playwrights.’

So there. Worthy goals.

The first thing to say about this production of Wilde’s classic ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is to comment on the chosen style, which was Steampunk. Director Kathleen McManus notes in the the program that the notion to stage Wilde’s play in Steampunk style first floated across her noggin years ago. And that right there, that might be the problem. For from the moment we take our seats and note the gears on the doors and the machined profile of the sofa, we sigh and say, ‘Oh no. Not steampunk.’ Doesn’t it feel like that trend has had it’s day? Doesn’t it feel, well… dated?

To this writer, yes, it does. It did.

And so I’ll be the first to admit that this review might be tainted with that sensibility. It’s entirely possible that I was disengaged from the curtain, except that the curtain speech was delivered by a Steampunk robotic tea caddy and it was hands down the most engaging curtain speech I’ve seen in many a moon. I’m pretty sure I’m on record that I HATE curtain speeches. They’ve become standard, an awkward moment of anti-theatricality that simply has to be GOT THROUGH so we can get to what we came here for. For the record, this curtain speech was delightful – I laughed out loud.

Sadly it may have been the last time I did that, and remember – this play is a comedy. Folks, is there anything sadder than a not funny comedy? A comedy that tries too hard and somehow never quite hits the mark?

We all know that a successful comedy depends on witty wordplay coupled with imaginative staging – physical comedy – and great timing. Well, we had the wordplay in one of the greatest comedic scripts of all time, except that the lead character, played by Jordan Mitchell, very often swallowed his wonderful lines. He was also the most guilty of flailing about in search of physical schtick – and worst sin of all was that the staging throughout the evening was not precise or graceful. It was, in fact, godawful. Jokes in the moment telegraphed by awkward, too big movements.

The actors I applaud were those who stayed for the most part still and held their space and thereby our attention: John Ammerman as Lady Bracknell, Tamia Fair as Cecily Cardew and Dan Reichard as Reverend Chasuble. I also enjoyed the work of Phil Mann as Algernon; he got very close to a fine performance but was betrayed by silly things like inedible props.

Was it a bad show? No. Even a disappointing Earnest is a treat, and I say that having seen several and even performed in one, many years ago. Was it good show? Oh, it tried so hard. But at the end of the day I think it says volumes when the most engaging character we saw all night wasn’t human.

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