You really are tempted to start off a review of this play by raving about how well written it is, but that is not really reviewing the play rather the playwright. Any play by Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde is going to be well-written, witty and entertaining. This particular play is probably his most famous and well-respected. It has been performed numerous times since its opening in 1895. It is considered by many to be the preeminent comedy of the 19th century. The play recounts the story of two men, Jack and Algernon, who assume the identity of a fictional alter ego named Ernest. Unfortunately for them, the two women, Gwendolyn and Cecily, that they fall in love with have fallen in love with Ernest – the name. What ensues is brilliant repartee and mistaken identities.
When world renowned Irish director Ben Barnes was approached by those at The Segal Theatre to put on a production of this play he was quite nervous because it is so well-known and loved that he felt he could not bring anything new to it. Barnes decided to take on the challenge and he decided to use the minimalist approach when staging this production. He realized that the play is so well-written that it does not need much else but the script and some actors to say the lines. Taking a cue from Wilde's infamously flamboyant wardrobe, the only 'loud' part of the production or set (besides the words) are the characters' costumes. This is not to say that Barnes has not made any changes in the play. The play originally took place in the late 19th century whereas Barnes has pushed it forward to 1927-28. This is interesting because it is a time when the emancipation of women came to the forefront and gender conflicts began to occur.
What one immediately notices (and has to give much respect to any actor willing to undertake such linguistic calisthenics) while watching the play is how challenging, tongue-twisting and dense the script is for the actors. The actors seem to be speaking at a hundred words a minute while also trying to maintain their British accents. For the most part, other than the occasional stumble, the entire cast did a good job with this challenging play. The two standouts for me within the cast were Nancy Palk as the incredibly shallow and pompous Lady Bracknell and Brenda Robins, who made me believe that it was actually Carol Burnett playing Mrs. Prism. I do have to say that I was a little disappointed with Damien Atkins performance as Algernon Moncrieff, especially after he was so good as the MC in the Segal Theatre's great production of 'Cabaret'. Though Algernon is supposed to be an idle and shallow member of the upper class, Atkins presented him as effeminate and foppish; it was too stylized and one-dimensional an interpretation for me. Because this Wilde play is like a series of one-liners in narrative form, timing is of the essence for the cast performing it. At times their timing was off, but not enough to mar one's enjoyment of the play.
Because of the nature of the play and the intimacy of the theatre, the audience really made itself part of the play as they often responded to what a character had just said or recited the next line in the play. Montreal audiences are quite unique in this level of knowledge and enthusiasm. The audience was enthusiastic about this comedy of manners, mistaken identity, love, and social classifications. The play, which is billed as 'a trivial comedy for serious people' is running until November 27th and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a witty laugh.