Sunday, June 5, 2011

What's In A Name?

Oscar Wilde’s utterly delightful and perhaps most accessible play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” has been playing to great acclaim at the Roundabout Theatre Company, earnings its director/star Brian Bedford accolades of all sorts. Not having seen the live production, I went for what I thought would be the next best thing, a filming in HD of a live performance.

Let us bear in mind that I don’t know that a camera can capture “The Importance of Being Earnest” even when it’s staged for film. Despite what had seemed like a dream cast for the 2002 film – Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Dame Judi Dench – the final product was dreary and slow. Perhaps cameras just ain’t got rhythm, and Oscar Wilde’s words require, of all things, rhythm. As long as each actor individually and all the actors together are in synch, theatergoers will happily journey to the heights of absurdity with them.

To film live theatre is a challenge. In the past often there was a camera merely filming the two-dimensional rectangle that is a proscenium stage. Others zoom in and have a bunch of close-ups. The National Theatre took the filming of a live performance to a new level of artistry with their recent production of “Frankenstein” ( where the cameras gave the filmgoers a view from the auditorium, from the wings, from the flies. Viewers were intimately involved in the story, seeing things the live audience in the theatre could not see, perhaps as fair a trade off as can be had for those unable to be present in the theatre.

Spatial relations matter onstage and cannot be seen in a close shot. I can only state this was not a problem in the “Live HD” filming at the National, so I cannot be sure which partner in the tri-party effort dropped the ball with “Earnest.” The three companies that produced the “Live HD” film of the production -- Roundabout Theatre Company, LA Theatre Works and BY Experience – missed the mark, even though BY Experience also worked with the National. “Direction” of the filming is attributed to David Stern. I hope not to see his name again. Although the director allegedly filmed three performances of the play with seven cameras and picked the best, it appeared more like he had merely read the script with the blocking marked out, and set up his shots based on something other than an understanding and passion for the play and players. His choices and pacing of close ups to longer shots showed a complete lack of rhythm, and there were too many close-ups for a play. He clearly loved Brian Bedford’s Lady Bracknell – and who wouldn’t – but instead of getting the cast’s response to Lady B, he kept doing close-ups of her/his/her face. A boring camera director cannot do justice to the work of a stage director.

As for the play itself: Brian Bedford directed this production and played the luscious role of Lady Bracknell. When asked what he thought about playing an extraordinary female role, Bedford said it was someone else’s idea that he’d initially thought a silly one. But then he’d just done Lear, and what does an actor do when he’s done Lear? Happily Bedford chose not to go camp and rather to play it straight – if I may use the term.

It’s my belief that an actor (male or female) directing himself on film may accomplish both his directing and acting jobs efficiently without diminishing one or the other; but that same actor (male or female) directing him/herself on stage is likely to diminish the accomplishment of one or the other work. After all, if he’s up there onstage acting, he’s not giving 100% of himself to the directing, and if he’s onstage directing the others, he’s not giving 100% as an actor. A dilemma. Mr. Bedford’s performance is marvelous, but this production did not seem up to his level as an actor.

That Brian Bedford’s Lady Bracknell is a delicious delight deserves repeating any number of times. He is haughty, he is stern, he is ridiculous, a perfectly marvelous Lady Bracknell.

Opposite styles are played by the two gentlemen in the play, Jack Worthing (David Furr playing it straight and stolid) and Algernon Moncrief (Santino Fontana mugging and milking). For the first time, and I’m quite familiar with the play, I wondered why the two men were friends. The point is that no one should think while watching Oscar Wilde, so clearly their disparate styles did not work well together in Act I, although they were much better in the second half of the evening, when Jack had the opportunity to be a little nuttier and Algy pulled back a bit, having met his mad match in Cecily.

As Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen, Sara Topham is upright, uptight, and prissy and, as happens in this play, perhaps a little mad, not to mention magnificently dressed. The always interesting Dana Ivey opens the second act in a state of high dudgeon, but then her Miss Prism seems always to be in that state. She is rather too broad in relation to Paxton Whitehead’s more naturalistic Dr. Chasuble. Paxton’s reverend was not a stuffy or stern churchman, but a sweet, oddly dressed, kind and practically sane character. Charlotte Parry as Cecily Cardew is right on, walking that wiggly line between absurdity and madness, believing everything she does and says makes perfect sense. Which it does, of course, in her world. She graciously invites others to join her because she’s been brought up so well.

Act I did not open auspiciously. The set (by Desmond Heeley, who also designed the gorgeous costumes) was witty and swell, a play within a play, a jolly game of a stage set as a stage set. But manservant Lane and his employer Algernon Moncrief started off in a rather effete fashion, playing caricatures of old theatrical types. Then on came Jack Worthing playing it straight. Once Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen arrived, the actors caught up with themselves and the timing began to work, as if the director’s entrance was necessary to shake or stir the other actors into the same mixture. This is a matter of style, and the director must choose one universe for all to inhabit, even the crazy people. This was not evident in Act I, but Acts II and III were very much better.

Two extremely difficult scenes are very well played here – the young ladies’ tea scene and the young gentlemen’s muffin scene. This is Wilde at his most hilarious, making mountains of molehills, character revelations out of muffins and teacakes. Timing is everything, and each duo – Topham as Gwendolen and Parry as Cecily; Furr as Jack and Fontana as Algernon – performed a perfect pas de deux.

Without the distraction of camera choices, the play may have appeared more pulled together. As it was, there was one more problem with the results on film – the play was not acted naturalistically (for the most part), or in a low-key manner. It’s high farce, and on film that comes off as rather loud and overacted. Mr. Bedford’s production is lots of fun but far from perfect, yet doubtless much better than the “film” of it attests.

~ Molly Matera, signing off on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, with miles to go before I .... see another film!

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