Gulfshore Playhouse has produced good shows, great shows and shows I wasn't quite a fan of.
Now, with "The Importance of Being Earnest," Kristen Coury finds herself in a different place entirely. "Earnest" is amazing.
I absolutely don't care if you hate Oscar Wilde. This will be the best two and a half hours of your life. Cucumber sandwiches not included. I don't like cucumber sandwiches anyway.
"Earnest," Wilde's scathing satire of Victorian manners and customs, premiered on Valentine's Day 118 years ago. The play tosses multiple cases of mixed-up identities, mistaken engagements, quirky servants, a towering dowager and more into elegant drawing rooms and genteel gardens. Manners rule above all else; when manners fail, the nobility pulls out a lorgnettte and calls for tea.
Neapolitans, get yourself to the Norris Center. Savor this exquisite masterpiece.
Wilde meant for the show to work on multiple levels. There's a romantic comedy, a withering commentary on manners and then the question of subtext. The characters constantly talk in circles. Very little of importance actually happens in "Earnest; Wilde specifically wanted the play to be about trivialities.
The genius - and the pleasure - comes from watching and noticing the tiniest details. These are the moments that Kristen Coury and her cast of professional actors spent time rehearsing, refining, working and reworking. A.J. Shively peeking into a mirrored jewelry box to spy on Earnest and Gwendolen. William Connell kneeling to propose, then springing to his feet again in haste. Claire Brownell entering the garden and freezing in a glamour shot pose, only to find no one of consequence there to admire her. These details lift the play from merely superb to divinely sublime.
Shively (Algernon Moncrief) and Connell (John Worthing) deliver a sterling duo of lead performances. Their prickly, can't quite identify it chemistry falls into place once the play's thicket of secrets unwinds. Kudos to Coury, Shively and Connell for achieving that subtle bit of theatre cleverness.
Remember Shively. Quicksilver magic on stage, he makes the thoroughly ridiculous Algernon seem both devilishly charming and imitably respectable. He and Coury pulled the character back from being a dandy; here, Algernon lands somewhere in the realm of hyperactive insouciance (if such a thing exists).
When she cast Shively and William Connell, Coury saw the opportunity for an interesting pairing.
Connell's John Worthing sweeps onstage in an elegant gray suit. Hat off, there's a patrician bearing that looks straight out of a Ralph Lauren advertisement. Connell plays the icy, serious foil to Shively's jokester to perfection. Watch for the fumbling attempts to propose to Gwendolen and a confrontation (or two) with the inimitable Lady Bracknell.
Brownell goes places with Gwendolen. Indescribable places. Her Gwendolen has layers upon layers to make the "Downton Abbey" girls seem simple. Or does she? Will she reject John solely on the basis of his name? You honestly don't know, because the actress keeps you guessing between vapid and vamp for most of the night.
Brownell, looking regal in a pair of Bronsted's smoky pidgeon-grey creations, elevates the concept of "snobby Victorian" from caricature to creation. Her Gwendolen communicates every meaning of the loaded sentences she delivers, always with a special twist. One of the most unexpected laughs comes from hearing (and watching) her repeatedly half-speak, half-snarl the name "Jack" every time she considers marrying anyone not named Earnest.
Robert F. Wolin takes his brief to create a drawing room set that blends period with modern - and that can transform into a garden - to wonderful heights. I want that wallpaper - a sumptuous crimson, with curls and swirls. Heavy gold frames cradle genEric Victorian paintings ashamed of themselves. Warm tile gleams from a fireplace.
Bronsted doesn't break the bank on ultra-lavish period costumes. Look for sophisticated elegance in small places, like pocket chains, Lady Bracknell's perfectly coordinated jeweled handbags or Connell's elegant ebony and silver walking stick. Shively scores a crimson waistcoat in Act One and an entirely too natty blue and white striped suit for the second half. He is the hippest of hipster Victorian.
Gardens. Cucumber sandwiches. A nice pot of tea. Even a rose for the gentleman's buttonhole. Lovely girls in beautiful gowns. Adorable boys in gorgeous suits. Funny ladies. Funny guys. You've never seen theater like this before. Discover "The Importance of Being Earnest."
Chris Silk is the arts writer and theater critic for the Naples Daily News. To read the longer version of this review, go to: http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2013/feb/16/review-gulfshore-playhouse-importance-earnest/.