Aug. 11 2009 12:00 AM

Arbitrary update of Wilde play detracts from shows strengths


If there were any better reason to reset the Victorian satire “The Importance of Being Earnest” in the height of mod 1969 London than dressing the actors in absurd wigs and boots for a laugh, this critic would not have objected to such a strange shift in time. As there does not appear to be any better reason, Capital TheaterWorks’ current production of Oscar Wilde’s classic work, directed by Kevin Burnham, attempts to substitute sight gags for Wilde’s subtle wit, leaving a confusing mash of clothes and conversation with often-poor British accents.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” is a script that can stand on its own, even under the weight of poor acting. Wilde created a mischievous comedy of manners that skewers the blatant hypocrisy in the social mores of the time — commentary that only makes sense in a more structured setting completely unlike the free-loving days of the late ‘60s.

Enjoyment can still be derived from this production, if one merely closes one’s eyes, listening only to the words and imagining a more appropriate setting. But this flippant misinterpretation of the text completely removes the artificial frame in which this play is set, the one required for the actors to make sense of their words.

Phillip Himebaugh and Ben Holzhausen lead the cast as two privileged young men who have created false identities for themselves, which provide social flexibility without sullying their given names. Ultimately, their sexual drives lead them into grave complications, including accusations of humble origins, before all is eventually resolved.

This metaphor-laden, superficial plot allowed Wilde to write some of the snarkiest, wittiest insults, while poking fun at the stiff shirts of the aristocracy.

Himbaugh and Holzhausen are consistently energetic throughout, but their comic chemistry does not fully gel until Act 2. They are, however, an appropriately driving force that is upstaged only by the play’s moral authority (although its center), Lady Bracknell, a role played perfectly by Bill Hensen.

While the character is a woman and is usually played by a woman, there is no better choice for the character in the Lansing area than Henson. From his pompous, crisp delivery wrapped delicately in a subtle Irish lilt to his expressive asides to the audience, Henson is hilarious in both of his too-short scenes. If nothing else, Hensen’s portrayal of Lady Bracknell is a performance worth seeing.

The rest of the cast, including Emily and Amanda Himebaugh, as the lady interests; Susan Churminsky; Mike Sobincinski; and John Minsky, as the occasional butler, do little to keep the play as alive as it could be.

The Himebaughs are dramatic but hardly charming, and Churminsky simply looks confused, speaking in a stale tone that only prolongs the drawn-out conclusion.

As colorful as Burnham’s set is and LeAnn Deflethson and Tanya Burnham’s costumes are, they are anachronistic when placed against the themes and issues raised by the lead characters.

While the free admission offered by the company as a means to entertain during tough economic times is a strong incentive to this show, Wilde’s work is far from vaudevillian slapstick. It is an intellectually charged comedy, but it only seethes when directed with restraint.

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

July 26 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday 2 p.m. Sunday Capital
TheaterWorks, Ledges Playhouse, 133 Fitzgerald Park Drive, Grand Ledge
FREE (517) 944-0221 www.capitaltheaterworks.org