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Peter Fernandes as Algernon Moncrieff and Gabriella Sundar Singh as Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest.Emily Cooper

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  • Title: The Importance of Being Earnest
  • Written by: Oscar Wilde
  • Director: Tim Carroll
  • Actors: Peter Fernandes, Martin Happer, Julia Course, Gabriella Sundar Singh, Kate Hennig
  • Company: The Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to October 9, 2022
  • COVID-19 measures: None

Line for line, The Importance of Being Earnest is without a doubt the wittiest play ever written.

The downside to Oscar Wilde’s 1895 script being so darn witty, however, is that it can often be exhaustingly so in production – like scrolling through a Twitter feed dedicated to clever epigrams for two and half hours. It can wear.

Director Tim Carroll’s charming new production of Earnest on the Shaw Festival’s main stage does the opposite, however: It builds and builds.

It may take a full act to truly find its feet, but after that it has excellent comic momentum, cresting beautifully at the ridiculous revelation of coincidences that tie up its absurd plot.

Algernon and Jack, the two idle-rich young men at the centre of the city louse/country louse plot, can often seem like mirror images of one another – as can their two love interests, Gwendolyn and Cecily. But here the foursome are all distinguished in both casting and characterization.

Peter Fernandes, in an amiable and lighthearted performance, gives us an urbanite Algy who is insouciant about everything except his cucumber sandwiches, while Martin Happer is serious to the extreme, dour and deadpan, as Jack, a country gentlemen who finds himself in a pickle.

The dilly is this: Jack would like to marry Algy’s cousin Gwendolyn (Julia Course), the daughter of Lady Bracknell (Kate Hennig), but there are two major impediments.

The first is that he has no biological parents on hand – just the handbag he was found in at a train station as a baby by a very rich man many years ago.

The second is that Jack operates under the name Ernest when in the city – a name he’s given to a fictional urban reprobate of a brother he’s invented as an excuse to leave town – and, as it happens, Gwendolyn loves him for that name as much as anything else.

It’s at Jack’s country estate where the ingredients of the plot all combine to produce a comical chemical reaction after Algy takes a train out, pretending to be Jack’s fictional brother Ernest in order to woo Jack’s ward Cecily (Gabriella Sundar Singh), and Gwendolyn shows up shortly thereafter.

Newly minted Siminovitch Prize winner Gillian Gallow has designed a truly delightful set for this part: A garden with a hedge maze behind it that turns every entrance and exit into a visual pleasure. Characters appear first only as an umbrella or a hat or get lost on their way out (in the particular case of Ric Reid’s frequently flustered Canon Chasuble.)

The height disparity between Course and Sundar Singh is played up to great effect in the hedges as well as when the two women – who are both in love with an Ernest who does not really exist – face off over tea.

It’s a strength of Carroll’s production that the women and the men seem so well matched in wit. One of Wilde’s most enduringly funny speeches, it struck me on this viewing, is Gwendolyn’s about her always off-stage father, Lord Bracknell.

“Outside the family circle, papa, I am glad to say, is entirely unknown. I think that is quite as it should be. The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don’t like that. It makes men so very attractive.”

This is utter nonsense and full of truth – and Course does a fine job pivoting between all its paradoxes.

It’s Hennig as Lady Bracknell who is the stand-out of the production, however. Too many directors of Earnest take Jack’s annoyed assertion that she is a “Gorgon” at face value, when she is, in fact, the most sensible of the bunch. Hennig is not afraid to play the villain as needed, but her brusque and pragmatic manner is endearing in its own way.

Hennig sets the bar so high that you can’t help but notice that other performances aren’t quite as pitch-perfect. But the only real stumble in the show is that first act – which is held back by an overly constricted design, in set and costume, and an overemphasis on having characters strike poses.

It’s always surprising to learn that The Importance of Being Earnest was initially criticized as being about nothing – when it seems, 125 or so years on, a much more of a piercing critique of society than Wilde’s melodramas that have social issues at their centre that now seem moot.

The earnest discussions of property and incomes feels taboo-busting.Emily Cooper

Indeed, the earnest discussions of property and incomes feels taboo-busting. In our current “age of surfaces”, people talk endlessly about the price of things, houses in particular, and very little about how wealth is truly accumulated and passed on in our society.

Not so Lady Bracknell, who quizzes Jack on every detail of his finances and is pleased to learn that Jack’s money comes from investments rather than land. “What between the duties expected of one during one’s lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one’s death, land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure,” she says. “It gives one position, and prevents one from keeping it up.”

I could just keep quoting from the play at length, but I’ll stop before this review turns into a tedious Twitter account.

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