Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Jun 30, 2014
05:43 PM
Stage Write

APT Brings the A-List to 'Earnest'

APT Brings the A-List to 'Earnest'

PHOTO BY CARISSA DIXON

Cristina Panfilio (left) and Kelsey Brennan match Matthew Schwader and Marcus Truschinski step for step and trip for trip in APT's excellent 'The Importance of being Earnest.'

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is the dramatic equivalent of your favorite decadent dessert, the one you’ll only indulge once or twice a year because it’s just so utterly sweet. Packed with witticisms, rich satire and bons mot the way a great cookie is packed with chocolate chips, Wilde’s magnum opus very much deserves its place in the comic pantheon.

In this sugary sense, it’s appropriate that American Players Theatre brings its sweetest mix of ingredients to director William Brown’s production of Earnest (playing in repertory through September 27). The recipe yields a nimble and hysterically funny show—and an appropriately memorable launch to the company’s thirty-fifth season.

Start with the cast, leading off with Matthew Schwader and Marcus Truschinski, two of the company’s most talented male actors, standing in as Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, a pair of dandies who find themselves entertained, tripped and tangled in their own mounting pile of romantic deceptions. They’re matched step for step and trip for trip by Cristina Panfilio’s Gwendolen Fairfax and Kelsey Brennan’s Cecily Cardew, a pair of women who inexplicably pine to love a man named—what else?—Earnest.  

Brown has slid the play’s setting into the jaunty 1900s, a world of frilly hats and striped blazers—you could almost expect to hear the barbershop strains of In the Good Old Summertime woven into the soundtrack. It’s an era that fits Truschinski’s Algernon flitting about in his velvet robe that looks like a work of abstract art, plotting his latest gleeful episode of Bunburying.     

Truschinski and Schwader have a grand old time with physical comedy, scuffling over muffins and personalized cigarette cases like grade schoolers over a stolen baseball cap. While Schwader proves adept at waxing dour and dumbstruck, Truschinski’s only too happy to break the fourth wall, tilting his head and mugging his wicked observations to the crowd—even when he’s in the middle of speaking to another character—and zeroing in on specific audience members to give the play an extra layer of coziness. It’s a trick he works to great effect, thankfully never overplaying or overusing it.

In some productions of Earnest, Gwendolen and Cecily are played as little more than silly trifles, dopey comic foils for the men to dote upon, flummox and frustrate. Not here. Panfilio drawls and extends each word of Gwendolen’s lines like a tendril she’s using to twist Schwader’s Jack or throw Brennan’s Cecily off guard. Brennan, in turn, has no trouble using her feminine wiles to rivet Algie’s attention as she’s watering plants in her garden. (This is, after all, the guy she’s been having an affair with in her diary for months before either of them met each other.) Both women aren’t at all afraid to unleash their sexual powers to get what they want, and it balances the comic proceedings nicely.  

Such is the embarrassment of riches in APT’s current company that we’re given Tracy Michelle Arnold, an actress who could carry the lead in any play on the APT season roster, rocking the minor role of Miss Prism, Cecily’s strict Teutonic tutor. Her romantic counterpoint, the Rev. Canon Chasuble, is played by John Pribyl, the guy who swiped last year’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern out from under its leads. Together, Arnold and Pribyl elevate a secondary comic thread into one that earns just as many laughs as the principals do.  

As Gwendolen’s imperious Aunt Augusta Bracknell, Sarah Day espouses all the upper-crust hypocrisies Wilde so delighted in tweaking, as she ticks through her list of questions to determine whether Jack’s Worthing, er, worthy of joining her aristocratic clan. And only Day could wring massive laughs out of a simple patrician over-pronunciation of the word “baby.” Hilarious.

By the time all of Wilde’s wild plot twists have been worked out and everyone’s true names and natures have been revealed, your funny bone’s likely to be exhausted, like an empty plate of cucumber sandwiches after a hearty afternoon tea. People tend to forget that the subtitle of Wilde’s play reads “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.” Wilde’s subtle irony isn’t at all lost on APT’s cast. They have a seriously great time with this so-called comic trifle, and as a result, so do we.  

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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