Theaterwork closes not only its current season, but also an 11-year run of more than 80 productions at its longtime home, with an enjoyable version of Oscar Wilde's comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest.
Essentially literalist, this take aims for a reverent reading, set in the period, with no monkey business. The approach poses challenges in capturing the labyrinthine class structures, accents and mannered attitudes of British society in the Victorian Era, which ***image1***Americans of any era have found inscrutable. Yet the straightforward approach allows Wilde's seamless script to speak for itself, unornamented and with a clarity that reveals its verbal wonders and its humor.
Theaterwork regulars Adam Harvey (Algernon Moncrieff), Jack Sherman (Jack Worthing), Dan Friedman (Reverend Chasuble), Wayne Cote as butlers Merriman and Lane and director Mario Cabrera in a delightful turn as Lady Bracknell are joined by the fresh talents of Jody Hegarty (Gwendolyn Fairfax), Angela Janda (Cecily Cardew) and Virginia Hall-Smith (Miss Prism). The cast members bring energy to their roles, most often allowing the natural absurdity of their beliefs and motives to appear plainly. Hegarty plays Gwendolyn as a manipulative and perhaps too sultry schemer, and Janda's Cecily is an infantilized, wide-eyed simp; although both approaches lack subtlety, the portrayals work within the context of the production.
The upper-class attitudes of the characters are perhaps not honed enough. Harvey's Algy is given to unlikely postures and impulsive behaviors. Harvey goes for an Algy too informal, a young man more dandy than his culture and class would have brooked. As Lady Bracknell says, the play takes place in "an age of surfaces," and no matter how cynical Algy is regarding manners and formality, his "surfaces" would have been as highly polished as those of the more conventional characters.
In general, this points to the strengths and vulnerabilities of a nonprofessional, local theater company attempting to sustain a roster of "permanent members of the company," as described in the playbill. The cumulative effect of attending more than a few Theaterwork shows cast with the same performers is jarring. Familiarity breeds consistency. Harvey, Sherman and Friedman in particular often seem to rely on exactly the same mannerisms, body language, vocal production and overall presentation from show to show. For those new to Theaterwork, or for whom consistency of this sort is desirable, or in the arduous process of staging new productions with a short rehearsal time, the limited pool of performers is a strength.
Wilde's script is devilishly unrelenting, a verbal onslaught of unexpected quips, asides, afterthoughts and reversals. Much of Wilde's humor relies on the pure comic irony of characters saying the exact opposite of what one expects. As Jack (Ernest) says, "Gwendolyn, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?" As it should be, the best energies in this production come directly from Wilde.
Wilde himself might have delighted in the ironies of Theaterwork's real estate situation. The theater company has lost its lease on its Rufina Circle black box space, home to the group for 11 years. Proudly displayed in the lobby is a plaque from the City of Santa Fe denoting Theaterwork as the recipient of the Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, 2005. (Two other highly regarded local arts organizations have recently received the Mayor's Award and subsequently found themselves homeless: Warehouse 21 and Theater Grottesco.)
As Wilde might have said, the only thing worse than not getting a Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts is…getting one.