Wilde Child

Novato Theater Company resumes indoor theatrical performances in ‘Earnest’

Directors will often change the setting or time period of an older, well-known play in the hopes of making it more accessible to contemporary audiences.

Modernized Shakespeare plays are usually the best examples of this practice. Similarly, the Novato Theater Company has taken Oscar Wilde’s community-theatre staple, The Importance of Being Earnest, and plopped it smack dab into the swinging 1960s. Their season opener runs through Nov. 21.

Jack Worthing (Lorenzo Alviso) and his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Thomas Peterson) have taken to creating fictional personas to add some spice to their dreary British lives. Jack has invented a brother named Ernest to assist him in courting the comely Gwendolen (Julianne Bretan) while Algernon escapes family obligations by visiting a nonexistent ailing friend named Bunbury.

Algernon decides to become Ernest and pursue Jack’s alluring ward Cecily (Gwendolyn Phair). Their deceptions fall apart one country weekend when they all end up together in the added company of the imperious Lady Bracknell (Kim Bromley). 

With such recent popular entertainments as Downton Abbey and Bridgerton finding favor with large audiences, I’m not sure director Mark Clark’s decision to change the setting of Wilde’s late 19th-century comedy to the 20th century’s mod ‘60s makes it any more accessible. If anything, the specter of Austin Powers hangs over the show, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Wilde’s play pokes fun at British society and its rules and rituals, while Powers mocks all things ‘60s-related. It’s a clash of comedic targets that makes for an odd mixture that ends up with Wilde’s acerbic wit often muted.  

There’s also an assortment of performance styles at work here. Alviso and Bromley give very grounded performances while Peterson’s Algernon is cartoonishly and annoyingly affected. Cartoonish could also be used to describe Bretan’s Gwendolen, but she’s so self-aware it’s much less off-putting. The same applies for Phair’s Cecily.

The setting does allow costume designer Mary Weinberg to have some fun with the colors, patterns, fabrics and materials for which the ‘60s — for better or worse — are known, so much so that the fashions occasionally upstage the performers.     

The three-act show runs two hours and 20 minutes total, with 10 minute intermissions between the acts. Pacing is generally good, but some of the dialogue seemed rushed.

It’s a seriously earnest but only partially successful attempt at doing something different with what Wilde himself called a trivial comedy for serious people.

’The Importance of Being Earnest’ runs through Nov. 21 at the Novato Theater Company, 5420 Nave Drive, Ste. C, Novato. Fri & Sat, 7:30pm; Sun, 2pm. $12–$27. Proof of vaccination and masking are required to attend. novatotheatercompany.org.
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