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Comedy of manners shines at CTP

Two bounders "bunbury" about in Collaborative Theatre Project's latest production, "The Importance of Being Earnest," and you may have to see the play to truly understand what that means.

"The Importance of Being Earnest," written by Oscar Wilde in 1895, and directed by Susan Aversa-Orrego, is a superb comedy of manners, carefully crafted and delightfully executed in this CTP performance. It's a comedic farce that ridicules the Victorian upper class and parodies the popular plays of the day.

It's a play of words, illusion and disguise, as socially correct artifice determines the nature of every exchange, the predictable outcome of every situation. The wealthy make the rules, which are rigid and exacting, and because the repartee is so absurd, the characters, the rules and the class they represent are made ridiculous. And we, the audience, can't help but laugh.

The bounders are both named Earnest, because the young ladies they pursue want only to marry men of that name. The name “Earnest” is a symbol of integrity, honesty, status and imbues the man with those qualities. The reality though is quite different. One Earnest is really Jack, who is a wholesome, country man of means except when he’s off and about in London as Earnest. The other Earnest is really Algernon, who goes off and about to see another chap (this one imaginary) named Bunbury when he wants to evade and elude his social obligations.

Craig Lamm in the role of Algernon and Jeff Ripley as Jack are both silly gents, wealthy and idle, in love with scheming, conniving women — Zoey Cane Belyea, who debuts at CTP as Gwendolen, and Sabrina Valenzuela, who returns to CTP as Cecily.

Of the two pairs, there’s clearly a greater and lesser evil: Lamm as Algernon is certainly less sympathetic and more dishonest. He cheats and steals and deceives with deliberate intent, laughing all the while. His sister, Gwendolen, is even less likable. Belyea is well suited to her role as Gwendolen, with a dismissive, pretentious air and a vicious, malicious bent very close to the surface.

The country couple, Ripley as John (Jack) Worthing and his ward, Cecily, as Valenzuela is more sympathetically drawn. Their country life provides a veil of natural goodness, a presumption of the Victorian age, which is particularly evident in how Valenzuela carries the role of Cecily. Valenzuela’s quick, fluid movements, expressive face and unruly, dark locks are the epitome of health and country vitality. Even so, both Ripley and Valenzuela play out their class-defined superficiality and delusion, the former perhaps from a desire to please, and the latter more from naivete than class consciousness.

The tyrant matriarch Lady Bracknell is played by Pam Ward in impeccable fashion. Ward handles the role as Dame Edith Evans did, with haughty pretension, superior disdain and ridiculous loud, outrage, in total disregard of reason.

Of special note is Sean Warren, who has the roles of two servants. Warren is Lane in town, an oh-so-correct butler standing tall and proper, and Merriman in the country, a man of all tasks, who shambles about shouting as he’s somewhat deaf and doing his best to obey. Victorian class relationships are cruelly apparent in the exchanges between the gentry and their domestics, and the entire cast plays these scenes very well. There’s nary a thank you, nor a please — and none expected.

Food figures large in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” literally and not figuratively. From the polite and proper teas (pinky fingers properly extended) with bread and butter and cucumber sandwiches or cream cakes, lots could be said about the symbolism. But what is absolutely remarkable is how Lamm as Algernon manages to eat his way through many muffins and never misses a line or a cue. Lamm’s timing was amazing, and not once was he surprised with a mouth full of cake.

The set and costumes for “The Importance of Being Earnest” are well done. The setting is easily changed from parlor to garden in simple transitions smoothly accomplished during intermissions with a turn of three panels, designed by Paige Pearson-Bates. Costumes, as always in the hands of an expert designer and seamstress, Susan Aversa-Orrego, are splendid. Worn in the classic, late Victorian fashion with a small bustle and a tight corset, the women’s movements are constrained and their posture is absolutely textbook for the time.

When “The Importance of Being Earnest” was first staged, Oscar Wilde claimed that the play was intended for light entertainment, and he dismissed any ideas of higher, moral intent. Shortly into the run, Wilde was imprisoned when his homosexuality was made public. On release from prison, Wilde reportedly reread the play with new perspective and acknowledged that he may have gone too far with his pointed satire, perhaps coming too close to the truth in his world.

Director Aversa-Orrego reminds us to be wary of the false fronts, of fictions and petty deceptions that surround us yet today. In the absence of more honest values, “The Importance of Being Earnest” places integrity front and center without sacrificing the biting humor that Wilde played with in 1895.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” continues at Collaborative Theatre Project, 555 Medford Center, through March 24. The three-act show runs about two hours, with two 10-minute intermissions. For more information or tickets, see CTPMedford.org or call the box office at 541-779-1055.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Photo by Dinah GreenfieldPam Ward, bottom left, Sean Warren, Zoey Cane Belyea and Jeff Ripley in Collaborative Theater Company’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”