02 July 2018

The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde, Adapted by Sterling Sax

The set of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Few modern plays are more widely known, read, or performed than Oscar Wilde’s comedic masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest. Premiering in 1895, I believe it was the most performed comedy of the 20th century. Given that repute, it is a daunting task to adapt the play, as Sterling Sax did for Nittany Theatre at the Barn, in a production directed by Dave Saxe. Cutting the play down from nine characters to five was an interesting choice, which had a mixed effect.

While most of the characters cut from the show—Lane, Merriman, and Dr. Chasuble—could easily be done away with, cutting Ms. Prism produced a very odd effect at the end of the play. Of course, Algernon’s conversations with an off-stage (and non-responsive) Lane, or Jack’s conversations with a similarly absent Dr. Chasuble were slightly awkward, but they weren’t detrimental to the show itself. But eliminating Ms. Prism, who ultimately leads to the unravelling of the entire conflict, made for an ending that moved very awkwardly. It doesn’t make much sense to keep Lady Bracknell’s demand that Ms. Prism be brought at once, then to immediately move on and have Lady Bracknell and the others supply the entire story of Jack’s origins and the mix-up with the handbag, baby, novel, and pram. It’s possible that the ending could have been written in such a way as to make this a smooth resolution, but because Ms. Prism is the missing element in revealing Jack’s origins (which allows the play’s happy ending) it feels like we haven’t quite gotten there if she is called for but then never appears.

Although some of the cuts and revisions to the play were questionable, the performances by the actors were generally quite strong, especially by the female members of the ensemble. Each of these actors brought their own distinct style and strengths to the performance, but each in her own way evoked British performance traditions of melodrama or music hall, which really played up the camp humor of Earnest. Lady Bracknell (Laura Ann Saxe) is one of the most delightful roles—in my opinion—in all of theatre. She is a haughty aristocrat with a finely developed sense of irony and a superiority complex only matched by her dedication to the arts of society. Saxe’s performance was more energetic than I typically picture Lady Bracknell, with more gestures and a raised voice, but she brought a dynamic energy to the character which balanced the kind of hoity-toity looking down one’s nose that I associate with the character with occasionally flying off the handle to keep Gwendolyn (Jocelyn Kotary) from being close to Jack (Tim Billiett).

Kotary’s performance was smaller than Saxe’s, with less big gestures, but she did a masterful job using facial expressions to generate humor. Kotary’s performance really reminded me of British music hall or of early silent films, where performers relied on facial expression. There isn’t much substance to Gwendolyn—out of all the major characters, she is most an object acted upon, as opposed to acting for herself—but she has some great commentary. One thing Kotary did to really stand out in perhaps the weakest major role of the play would be to deliver one of Gwendolyn’s lines and then look at the audience in a mix of confusion and self-satisfaction, which said “this character knows she’s supposed to be witty, but doesn’t fully know why.”

Courtney Witmer also gave a great performance as Cecily Cardew, blending a kind of wide-eyed innocence with a clearly controlling hand designed specifically to assert her will. Cecily, being associated with the country, is supposed to be a send up of stereotypical simplicity and purity, and Witmer conveyed that through her facial expressions, which were often wide expressions of astonishment or hope, especially when dealing with Algernon (Jeff Buterbaugh) in his guise of Earnest Worthing. However, we also saw the opposite component of Cecily’s personality, when she skillfully manipulates Algernon, and then wins Lady Bracknell’s approval. Watching Lady Bracknell’s inspection of Cecily, one had the not entirely comfortable sensation of watching something like a dog show, where the winner knows exactly what must be done to win and tries her best to fulfill that expectation. For instance, the way Witmer held her hands, turned up at the wrists, with arms slightly out from her body, suggested a studied poise—a pose meant to convey delicacy, sophistication, and good manners, but which also faintly suggested the country denizen trying too hard to fit the grace she thinks society expects.

My one critique of the performances is of the decision to perform using fake English accents. Many people, even actors, do not do accents well, and do not sustain them well. It’s just rough to hear a play done entirely in what are clearly fake accents.

02 June 2018

Rumors, by Neil Simon

Despite Neil Simon’s popularity and reputation, this was actually the first time I had seen (or encountered) a Simon play, and I can definitely appreciate why people enjoy his works so much. Rumors is a hilarious show about a set of upper class New Yorkers trying to protect their friend from a scandal they themselves don’t even understand and having to go to extreme lengths to keep up the web of lies.

This was also the first show I saw at Nittany Theatre at the Barn in Boalsburg, PA. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the theatre space was very nice (though some air conditioning wouldn’t go amiss). As you can see from this photo of the set, the space itself was nicely intimate, which worked really well for a play like Rumors, which is set at a dinner party.

Directed by Mike Knarr, the Nittany Theatre production was incredibly funny, with excellent performances from all of the cast members. In particular, Rob Arnold as Ken Gorman, Tim Balliett as Lenny Ganz, and Hilary Appelman as Clair Ganz were probably the standout performances as they all had distinct and well developed comedic styles. Arnold’s great strength was his delivery, which blended a flustered sense of purpose with confusion, especially after his character was deafened. In responding to what he thought he was hearing, Arnold got a lot of laughs by confidently moving forward based on what he thought he heard, while the audience knew that something completely different had been said.

Balliett took a different comic tack, with high energy frustration and exasperation as his driving force. Lenny Ganz is quicker than the other guests to anger and since he spends much of the play running around trying to keep up the appearance that there is no scandal at this party, his distress is understandable (plus he crashed his new BMW on the way to the party and got whiplash). Balliett’s strongest moment was probably when he impersonated Charlie at the end of the play and explained to the police in passionate detail the series of events that had taken place surrounding the two gunshots from earlier in the evening. He brought so much over-the-top energy and passion to the performance that we—along with Officer Welch (played by Rod Egan)—bought the story, even if we don’t believe it.

In contrast to these higher energy performances, Appelman was a cool, sophisticated, and snarky voice throughout the play. Clair Ganz’s purpose in the play is largely to provide sarcastic commentary on what’s going on, and to throw out occasional comments which complicate the other characters’ attempts to keep the situation under control. Appelman perfectly embodied this character, with he detached, split-second delivery of one liners.

One of the few weak points of the show was some of the more overt physical comedy. There are times where characters trip entirely over pieces of furniture and end up either splayed on the furniture itself or sprawled on the ground. This seems like a weakness of the writing that the cast did their best with. As an element of the play structure, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense that this group of refined, upper class people would periodically tumble over sofas and ottomans.