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Style is the vital thing 

Comedic overachievers sparkle in Orlando Shakes' 23rd season opener

click to enlarge TONY FIRRIOLO
  • Tony Firriolo

The Importance of Being Earnest

through Oct. 9
Orlando Shakespeare Theater
812 E. Rollins St.

Among the many brilliant and epigrammatic lines in Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnestare two that, when juxtaposed, shed light on the thematic structure of the play – and help explain why it’s been such a crowd-pleaser for so many years. The first is delivered by Gwendolen at the beginning of Act 3: “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” The second line, which closes Act 1, belongs to Algernon, who has just been told that he never talks anything but nonsense. He replies, “Nobody ever does.” Replace the phrase “grave importance” with “nonsense” and you have the essence of the Wildean modus operandi: “In matters of nonsense, style is the vital thing.” And that is precisely what everyone in the playwright’s most famous opus does from start to finish: talk nonsense with style.

But what nonsense and what style! With a wonderfully accomplished cast of comic overachievers at his disposal, director Jim Helsinger has brought out the best of Wilde’s dazzling and nonsensical wordplay in this sparkling opening production of the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre’s 23rd season.

But Helsinger is smart enough to know that a modern American audience will not be sated with stylish verbiage alone, so he has devised an array of inventive physicality that helps manifest each character’s nonsensical inner core. Whether it’s Avery Clark’s Algernon splaying himself upon the garden lawn in abject desolation, or Deanna Gibson arching her neck at an impossibly obtuse angle while feigning an intellectual disposition to which her character Cecily is completely unsuited, each player presents a carefully constructed visual correlation of the silly and self-aggrandizing world that Wilde so luminously poked fun at.

And if that weren’t enough to please the masses, there’s Philip Nolen’s tour de force performance as the gorgon-like Lady Bracknell. Dressed in costume designer Jack Smith’s violent red concoction of fabric, feathers and bustles, Nolen invades the stage with the force of a runaway caboose, careening backward into a crowd of cowering spectators hustling to get out of the way of his vitriolic bombast. When a man plays a female character, he has a few histrionic tricks up his corset that, when revealed at the right moment, makes one wonder why the part isn’t always portrayed by the wrong gender: When Nolen decided to drop his heretofore feminized voice into a register below a low C, even the ushers had to run for cover.

After watching the opening night performance of Earnest,I decided to revisit the script, one I’ve read often over the years; having the Orlando Shakes version in my head made for a most agreeable re-examination of Wilde’s beguiling comedy. Kudos to Helsinger and company for a production that illuminates Wilde’s vision, perhaps in a way that the Victorian gentleman himself might have enjoyed – a completely nonsensical way, of course.

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