The Montford Park Players opens its 38th season of free outdoor Shakespeare with a play by Oscar Wilde. Well, not exactly: the show is actually billed as “pre-season,” and apparently it is the season to pay one’s bills. The production is a fundraiser for the plays to come, which will include the usual mix of Shakespeare classics like King Lear and Twelfth Night along with a “deep cut” into the bard’s B-sides: this time it’s Troilus and Cressida, which I am probably not alone in never having seen.
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is an absolutely delightful, preposterous, irreverent, witty and for all intents and purposes, flawlessly-constructed farce. I doubt there’s a writer in the language who can hope to match Wilde in sheer density of witticisms per square inch (wpi2) of dialogue — not even, no not even The Bard Himself. And Wilde does all this while sending his characters careening through the chutes and ladders of a plot whose complexity is matched only by its fun. I won’t try to summarize it here, mostly because I can’t; but suffice it to say there’s a lot of earnestness in the play, both true and false.
Jason Williams, who must be one of the hardest-working theatre artists in Asheville, directs a smart and talented cast, who themselves obviously love the play. As the voice and diction coach for the production, Charlotte Lawrence has done impressive work with the cast, and for the most part, they know how to aim Wilde’s epigrammatic wit so that it hits the mark. Williams could perhaps have added to our enjoyment by allowing these zingers to quiver there a fraction of a second longer, but no doubt it’s preferable for the director of a farce to err on the side of speed.
Given not only the complexity of the plot — even as it plays out within individual scenes — but also the difficulties presented by a thrust stage, it is remarkable how clear Jason Williams’s staging manages to keep the action. He wisely moves the play along at a brisk clip, but never lets things go off the rails into sheer mayhem and dizziness. Along the way, he and the actors mine the physical-comedy vein for all it’s worth. Ryan Maddan as “Lane” lays claim to more than his fair share of these nuggets, and as “Merriman,” Jonathan Milner — a young actor of great promise, it seems to me — has a hilarious bit involving a piece of cake.
While everyone has his or her shining moments, two of the cast really sparkle for me: Matt Tavener, who plays the well-intending and actually quite earnest “Jack Worthing,” and Hannah Rechtschaffen, who plays “Gwendolyn Fairfax,” his fiancée. According to their bios, both actors have performed with Montford before: How have I missed them? They’re fantastic. Not only do they both handle the British dialect with ease, but they’re both obviously at ease on stage. It’s tremendously satisfying to see an actor who can relax into his or her role, even when the character may be all wound up.
Tavener acts with his whole body, and his voice comes out clear and strong from deep in his chest. He plays the straight man like a champ, never succumbing to the temptation (admittedly strong in a Wilde world) to ham it up. Rechtsschaffen rises to the same level, and for the same reasons. Her “Gwendolyn” is a force to be reckoned with, at once sassy, petulant and sexy. She moves about the stage with a palpable sense of entitlement, and this is of course absolutely right for Gwendolyn, who has never had to lift a finger in her life to get what she wants. Whenever Rechtschaffen or Tavener is in the scene, we know we can relax and enjoy — because they are relaxed, focused and in complete control of their instruments.
The more shows I see Montford’s intrepid players undertake, the more fond of them I become. It’s community theater at its best, as far as I’m concerned. The vibe with the audience is supportive and enthusiastic, and you can’t help but feel that everyone, both onstage and off, is having a tremendously good time. Are the sets, lights and costumes lavishly designed and expertly executed? Are the actors universally brilliant and compelling? Is the directing visionary at every turn? Don’t answer that: It doesn’t matter. For non-professional theatre artists working on a shoestring budget, they deliver, in The Importance of Being Earnest, some remarkably good entertainment.
The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde. Presented by The Montford Park Players. Directed by Jason Williams. Featuring: Matt Tavener, Scott Keel, Hannah Rechtschaffen, Trinity Smith, Jane Porterfield, Scott Bean, Stephanie Hickling, Ryan Madden and Jonathan Milner. Stage Manager: Beth Mayo. Lighting and Sound Design: Jason Williams. Set Design: Kenn Kirby. Costume Design: Mary Dillon. Voice/Diction Coach: Charlotte Lawrence. Performances Thursdays through Saturdays, through April 17, 7:30 p.m., Sunday April 11 at 2:30 p.m., Sunday April 18 at 7:30 p.m.. Asheville Arts Center, 308 Merrimon Ave., Asheville. Tickets: $15/$10 seniors and students. Thursdays are “Pay-What-You-Can” nights. For reservations or more info, call (828) 254-5146 or visit montfordparkplayers.org.
Photo of Oscar Wilde, 1882, by N. Sarony.