|Picture shows Blaine Vincent III, Heather Bach, Fayra Teeters, Kaitlynn Baugh, and Thomas McAulay.|
By Tina Arth
Full transparency: The Masque Alfresco production reviewed below is being performed in three different locations this summer, and the third location (August 23-24-25) is using one of the Theatre in the ‘hood “stages” – my back yard.
Masque’s summer, 2019 offering is an interesting hybrid of a well-known British farce (Oscar Wilde’s oft-performed The Importance of Being Earnest) with the traditions of Commedia dell’Arte, an improvisational theatrical style with its roots in 15th century Italy. Producer Fayra Teeters, has adapted Earnest’s script to better conform to the genre, including the incorporation of overtly modern socio-political tropes reflecting the hypocrisy of our era. The show further includes several essential Commedia touches called “lazzi” (stock comedic routines, both verbal and physical – think “Who’s On First” or a pie in the face). Earnest already partly incorporates other key Commedia elements – Oscar Wilde’s version of stock characters such as the comic servant (Merriman), Il Capitano (the swaggering, manipulative, food-obsessed Algernon Moncrieff), Il Dottore (Reverend Chasuble and Lady Bracknell, the wealthy and class-conscious elders who endeavor unsuccessfully to block the path of true love), the Innamorati (lovers around whom the whole plot revolves, in this case John (Jack) Worthing and Gwendolyn Fairfax), and themes of disguise (literal masks in Commedia dell’arte, Jack’s and later Algernon’s “disguises” as Ernest).
Teeters’ adaptation is definitely abbreviated, and includes a fair amount of singing, and director Paul Roder has incorporated a lot of the physical comedy so essential to 15th century Italian audiences – expect pratfalls and other unexpected touches. In the outdoor environment, the actors have to play everything large and loud to overcome environmental distractions. In other words, go prepared to enjoy the show with no expectation that it will resemble any Earnest that you’ve previously seen.
For those who are not familiar with the show, here’s a Cliff’s Notes version: It’s around the turn of the 19th century, and Jack and Algernon, two wealthy Englishmen, are both masters of deception. Jack lives in the country with his ward Cecily, and Algernon lives in London. To shelter Cecily from rumors of his sometimes wayward behavior and gives himself an excuse for going into London, Jack has invented an imaginary (and very dissipated) brother named Ernest – when in London, Jack calls himself Ernest. Algernon lives in London, but has invented an imaginary country friend named Bunbury who provides him with the excuse to duck out of town (and unappealing social engagements) at will. Jack’s social status is suspect, as a wealthy family adopted him after he was found as an infant in a black handbag in Victoria Station, so Lady Bracknell is unwilling to approve his marriage to her niece (and Algernon’s cousin) Gwendolyn. Cecily is fascinated by the stories she has heard about Ernest’s wicked ways, so when Algernon unexpectedly appears in the country claiming to be Ernest, she is immediately drawn to him (and he to her). Gwendolyn wants to marry Ernest (Jack), while Cecily wants to marry Ernest (Algernon), so each man has asked the Reverend Chasuble to baptize them with the new name. Got that? Of course it all works out in the end, with revelations of noble parentage and unexpected pairings – at the end only Lady Bracknell and the servant Merriman are left uncoupled.
Kaitlynn Baugh’s naïve, effervescent Cecily is a definite highlight, and she contrasts nicely with Heather Bach’s sardonic mien as the more levelheaded Gwendolyn. Bach also adds literal grace notes to the show with a lovely voice that manages to keep the a cappella vocals on track. Blaine Vincent III gives a puppy-like, engaging tone to Jack as he tries to win Gwendolyn’s hand, surviving several inexplicable but well-delivered pratfalls, and Thomas McAulay’s slightly smarmy Algernon provides another nice contrast.
Fayra Teeters looks and acts every bit the judgmental, class-conscious Lady Bracknell with her supercilious sneer and weaponized umbrella. Robin Michaels’ role (as Cecily’s governess Miss Prism) is small, but very fun – she gives her usually stern and upright character a bit of coyness that adds depth to the character. I hope to see the show at least once when understudy Amelia Michaels plays a role (either that of Gwendolyn or Cecily), as I suspect that she’ll bring an entirely new dimension to either role.
Given the outdoor and moveable setting, sets and sound design are necessarily minimal, but costumer Karen Roder makes up for it with elaborate and elegant attire for her cast. Masque Alfresco productions are free, but they do pass the hat enthusiastically at the end of each show. Be sure to bring your own chairs or (for the more flexible) a blanket – and take advantage of the outdoor venue to also pack a picnic. There’s no reason why Algernon should get all of the good sandwiches!
Masque Alfresco’s adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest plays at Lake Oswego’s George Rogers Park through August 4, the Beaverton Library Lawn August 9 – 18, and Theatre in the ‘hood (9020 SW Caroline, Portland) from August 23 – 25, with Friday, Saturday, and Sunday shows at 7:00 p.m.