Shakespeare ’70 players master Wilde wordplay

Algernon (Ray Fallon) and Cecily (senior sociology/communications studies major Maddie Patrick) prepare to be wed. (Tim Lee / Photo Editor)
Algernon (Ray Fallon) and Cecily (senior sociology/communications studies major Maddie Patrick) prepare to be wed. (Tim Lee / Photo Editor)

Great writers like Oscar Wilde live on in the works they leave behind.

On Feb. 4 Shakespeare ’70, Mercer County’s classical theater group, in association with the College, brought the Don Evans Black Box Theater alive with their production of Wilde’s late work, “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

Wilde’s whimsical comedy, first staged in 1895, revolves around wordplay, or rather, a play on names. Two young men pretend to be named Ernest (so that they may escape family obligations) and each become engaged under that name. Though John and Algernon, played by Fred Halperin and alumnus Ray Fallon, respectively, plan to later reveal their true identities, they soon find out their brides-to-be only want to marry men named Ernest. Because the characters are so earnest to be married, antics ensue.

If not done correctly, “Earnest” can fall flat and feel hours longer than it is. It does, after all, rely less on plot and more on the witty banter between characters. Since the play is 115-years-old, the various puns and commentary aimed at Victorian society risk becoming stale. Therefore, the dialogue must be delivered in just the right manner.

The cast succeeded with this and performed the play with ease. Within the first scene, it became clear the actors were having a great time with their lighthearted production and therefore made it all the more enjoyable for the audience.

All of the cast members had their shining moments, but it was Fallon as Algernon Montcrieff who most frequently stole the scene. The character is a jokester by nature, but it was Fallon’s amused grins and confidence that took the audience in on the joke.

Another notable performance was given by Carol Thompson, who brought years of experience to the stage in her role as the pretentious, conservative, high-society Lady Bracknell. It takes skill to maintain a straight, judgmental face while spewing out such finery as “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness,” and “Nor do I in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids. I consider it morbid. Illness of any kind is hardly a thing to be encouraged in others.”

Charlie Leeder, as Dr. Chasuble, gives Fred Halperin’s character some expressive advice. (Tim Lee / Photo Editor)
Charlie Leeder, as Dr. Chasuble, gives Fred Halperin’s character some expressive advice. (Tim Lee / Photo Editor)

As for the set, designed by Kendall Hall Theatre coordinator Dale Simon, it was in itself a performance. Unlike many productions at the Black Box — which very often consist of simple and largely unchanging scenery — the detailed set underwent a massive transformation from Algernon’s living room to the garden of Jack’s country home. This set change necessitated the help of both cast and crew, with the crew wearing costumes that made them look as though they were Jack’s servants. The audience applauded enthusiastically when the change was completed.

All in all, the performance was very well done and a joy to watch. Laughter was frequent and the ending bows came much too soon.

Shakespeare ’70 has been performing in central New Jersey for 40 years. The cast and crew consist of College alumni, students and others. Upcoming performances of “Earnest” start at 8 p.m. in the Don Evans Black Box Theater on Feb. 11-13. There will also be a matinee performance at 2 p.m. on Feb. 14.