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Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

When the Belmont University Department of Theatre and Dance put smartphones in the hands of the characters in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” it became obvious: Wilde would totally have been Twitter famous.

The whimsical and absurd exaggerations of Wilde’s 1895 play translate perfectly into the new digital age, as director Jaclynn Jutting intended for her 2017 interpretation of the play.

At times, the inclusion of phones feels so natural that their presence is almost overlooked. A maid stands off to the side of the stage at one point, scrolling through her phone absentmindedly, and the action is so natural and reflexive that we wonder if the actress is really looking at her own Facebook feed.

When Gwendolyn, played by Madison Bailey, says “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train,” the line resonates more in this modern adaptation because the diary she speaks of is, in fact, her social media account.

In the relatively sparse Black Box Theater, lighting and sound enhance the show almost as much as the actors’ phones enhance the delivery of their lines.

Throughout the play, pings of the characters’ notifications ring through the theater, effectively making the smartphone alerts feel omnipresent. When two characters compare their social media posts, the audience sees the screens too, projected on the back of the set. It’s the little details that make the Victorian play feel relevant and fresh.

The intimacy of the Black Box Theater leaves little room to hide and no space for distractions, something the student-actors of the theater and dance department handle with ease. The actors, particularly Joe Cash as Algernon, are confident and at ease.

But not every joke of Wilde’s lands, and for an audience member that’s read the play before, that’s a little bit of a disappointment. Wilde should be soaked up, not rushed through.

But for those unfamiliar with “The Importance of Being Earnest,” the show is a great introduction to the satirical and hilarious Wilde, and one that easily earns plenty of laughs from the tightly-grouped audience.

Special attention and creativity has also been paid to the costume design, at the hands of Kandler Oldham. Algernon appears onstage in a coat so ostentatious it would make Macklemore shake his head, and the vain and cosmopolitan Gwendolyn dresses like she just bought an entire rack of clothes at Forever 21. Appropriately, the appearance-obsessed representation of the British upper-crust, Lady Bracknell, wears the most Victorian clothes of anyone.

The creativity and sharpness of the dialogue is owed to Wilde, but the modern adaptation undertaken by the Department of Theatre and Dance showcases the wit and hard work of the program.

The cast and crew will kick off their final weekend of the play with shows on Nov. 16-19. Tickets are free for students and are available online and at the box office.

Photo courtesy of Rick Malkin

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