There’s some terrific hat acting going on over at Arizona Theatre Company.
Among the stunning costumes Yoon Bae created for the company’s season opener, the absolutely delicious, every-line-is-funny “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde, are the fascinators sitting on top of the women’s heads.
Especially Lady Bracknell’s head. Bae has fashioned a hat with a feather on top that extends actress Allyce Beasley’s already-impressive height by about two feet. The long, slender feather bounces and sways with every movement.
And it underscores what’s wrong with this production: While it looks beautiful, has some good performances and is a wonderful script, it is trying hard, way too hard, to be funny, to be different, to wring more out of Wilde than is necessary.
There’s no need to embellish Wilde’s words, which are witty, rhythmic and precise. Much of the production came off as painfully self-conscious.
Take Bracknell, for instance. The role is a gem; one of the juiciest roles for female — and male — actors (both have played the part). She is opinionated, stern, intractable and the embodiment of the Victorian values Wilde so cleverly devastated with this character.
Beasley, who has an impressive track record on stage, television and the movies, played her as a ditz. That’s just wrong.
And then there was Matt Leisy in the role of Algernon, a young man who assumes an alternate identity in pursuit of a rowdy good time in the English countryside and who finds love in the process. Leisy played the character as a dandy who embraced his prissy side. Perhaps that was a homage to Wilde, who was quite the dandy himself. But the portrayal distracted more than informed.
While some performances were strange in this Stephen Wrentmore-directed production, others worked well. Loren Dunn’s Jack/Earnest had an elegance laced with befuddlement, giving his character an honesty.
Anneliese van der Pol’s Gwendolen had exquisite timing and practically floated across the stage, taking full advantage of Bae’s flowing costumes. And Heather Marie Cox had an innocence and rebelliousness that nicely portrayed the teenage Cecily, who thinks the world is hers to control.
There was also a very bizarre moment between acts II and III, when Leisy and Dunn came to the edge of the stage and did a sort of vaudevillian rendition of the Beastie Boys’ “Girls.” It was funny, sure, but gratuitous and anachronistic, and seemed to be there for no other reason than to attempt to put a contemporary spin on the play (not too contemporary though; the song was a hit 26 years ago).
The thing about “Earnest” is, it doesn’t need spin.
It is a piece of froth that ruthlessly mocks Victorian society with a razor-sharp wit and exquisite writing. And that is more than enough for a thrilling night at the theater. Everything else just gets in the way.