Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011

Oscar Wilde Unplugged

Wilde’s Wit Without All The Decoration

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Having run the Boulevard Theatre for over a quarter of a century now, Artistic Director Mark Bucher is has a deep and intimate understanding of what can be produced in a small space. Along with the Off The Wall Theatre, the Boulevard is a small stage in a city populated by a  great many small spaces. With little or no budget for sets or costuming, the real appeal of the Boulevard’s latest is the actors themselves.

 

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is first and foremost about the comedy of human folly. Stripping away all of the rest of the decorations—simple, period-suggestive costuming, a few rehearsal chairs, a few mirrors and a bus cart are all there serving essential purposes. Without any ostentatious show from the production itself, the ostentatious-ness of Wilde’s characters has the opportunity to shine through like a floodlight. Thanks to the direction of Mark Bucher and what is largely a blindingly clever cast, the Boulevard’s Earnest does precisely that.

 

Boucher’s direction is precise and clean with more than a few moments of neat near-symmetry. There’s a lot of synchronized movement and speaking in unison that so cleverly brings underscores Wilde’s skewering of the aristocracy. Sand meaningless bits of formality was kind of a class distinction  and without all the decoration, it looks all the more absurd.

 

The cast is a real pleasure to see onstage. Fresh Page Productions Artistic Director Kyle Queenan plays the Algernon—the saucy aristocrat with designs on toying with the desires of Jack Worthing—played by David Matthew Bohn. Worthing has strong affections for Gwendolyn Fairfax (Youngblood Theatre co-founder Tess Cinpinski) She returns his  affections, but things are complicated as any marriage between the two must have the blessing of one Lady Bracknell (Margaret Casey.) Bracknell wields power and authority that is decidedly against any pairing of Jack and Gwendolyn. Things ultimately get resolved at Worrthing’s country residence. In an affair involving sudden affections aroused in Algernon by the young miss Cecily Cardew (played by Megan Kaminskiy.) 

 

A few shaky moments aside, this is actually a remarkably well-balanced cast. The trick of the matter is the fact that, what with all the precision involved in synchronized motion and speaking in unison, even missing timing by the slightest fraction of a second can make a comic moment feel intolerably off-balance. For the most part, on the Thursday night performance I attended, there was a brilliant sense of precision about things that kept the momentum of the piece going through three acts AND two intermissions.

 

It’s a great deal of fun to see Queenan  and Bohn squaring off against each other onstage. That being said, my favorite moment in the entire production was the initial meeting between Cecily and Gwendolyn. Cinpinski and Kaminsky gracefully glide through the aristocratic pretensions of two people meeting for the first time in a deliciously superficial insincerity. Kaminsky hasn’t been onstage nearly as much as she should’ve been over the past couple of years—or maybe it just feels that  way. She’s made some exquisitely memorable appearances with UWM, but aside from that and what must be a really fun gig at the Milwaukee County Zoo, she’s been kind of scarce. Her performance here does a really good job of illustrating why she really should do more theatre. Cinpinski has been seen onstage much more often with Youngblood, but that has involved quite a lot of performing largely in contemporary roles. It’s really refreshing to see a show where it feels like the ink is still drying on the script—that’s what makes Youngblood so fun, but it’s really, really nice to see Cinpinski in a more classic role written by one of the best-loved playwrights in history.   

 

Queenan and Bohn hold-up their end of the play remarkably well. Queenan’s sense of whimsical, upper-class boredom is cleverly counter-pointed by Bohn’s sense of passion and poetry that is . . . nevertheless overshadowed by the standard aristocratic sense of pretension. It’s staggeringly difficult to make perfectly precise comic timing also seem natural enough to appear perfectly fabricated in the context of a Wilde script. (Okay, don’t think about that last sentence too much, it probably doesn’t make any actual sense…) Queenan and Bohn do an admirable job of balancing everything, even when the timing isn’t absolutely perfect.

 

In light of all the talent in the center of the ensemble, it’s easy to overlook really strikingly good performances on the part of nearly everyone involved in the production. In particular, it’s kind of nice to see David  Ferrie relaxing in a minor comic role here after all of the insidiously heavy stuff he’s been involved in. (Clarence Darrow? Fine. George Pullman? Great.  But can you please do something on the order of a comically doddering, old holy man? Thanks.)

 

The Boulevard Theatre’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest runs through December 3rd. For ticket reservations, call 414-744-5757. A far more precise and coherent review of the show runs in the next Shepherd-Express.  

 

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