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Importance of Being Earnest

Ann Arbor Observer‘s Sally Mitani gives us a stellar sneak peek into the UMS presentation of The Importance of Being Earnest, a high-definition broadcast at the Michigan Theater on Thursday, June 2 at 7 pm.

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a remarkable play. It’s over 100 years old and still as light and funny as the day it was born. It’s not Hamlet or Macbeth, mind you — it doesn’t mature like fine wine or cheese, always developing new flavors and textures. It’s more like an ice cream soda that you’ve left on the table for 100 years, and miraculously still tastes the same. Wilde’s trick? The play pretends to be two hours of meaningless, airy banter that takes place in some realm of artifice so divorced from reality, it’s almost science fiction, but at rock bottom, it’s about the mating rituals of the idle rich, and Wilde’s thesis is that a smart, stylish gentleman’s stock in trade is his ability to think fast on his feet. That’s a serviceable formula, hidden beneath the glitter and pyrotechnic wordplay.

If you’re looking for depth in Oscar Wilde, consider this. When you watch The Importance of Being Earnest, you’re watching a man about to plunge over the side of a cliff. Wilde paid for his fun. Shortly after Earnest opened, Oscar Wilde took a series of misteps in his private life, a life he’d always lived pretty close to the edge. Convicted of gross indecency, he was sentenced to two years of hard labor at Reading Gaol. Upon his release from prison, he went insane, and ended his life wandering around Paris under the name of Sebastian Melmoth, dying at the age of 46. He wrote two more things after The Importance of Being Earnest: De Profundis and Ballad of Reading Gaol. The old Oscar Wilde was gone—these two works skitter between incomprehensible and hair-raising.

Two points about this production in particular.

I don’t want to get all Marshall McLuhan-esque…oh who am I kidding. I absolutely do. The Michigan Theatre June 2 production isn’t the play itself. It’s “captured live in high-definition from the Broadway stage for limited screenings in movie theaters and performing arts centers across the U.S. and internationally.” Or, as we say here in the midwest, a movie.

As a fan of actual boots-on-the-ground theatre, I’m not completely on board with this new cultural vehicle in which famous New York theatrical events are beamed out to the provinces. UMS isn’t the only subscriber to this brave new world. Quality 16 frequently shows simulcasts of Metropolitan Opera productions, but somehow when it’s happening out there at the cineplex, it seems like it’s only replacing Die Hard in a Hail of Bullets, Part 16. This downtown UMS event seems a more significant harbinger of the future of live theatre.

And a note—a fairly unimportant one, I think—on the cast. This production’s much advertised selling point is Brian Bedford in the role of Lady Bracknell (and he’s also the director). Bedford’s a Stratford regular. It was there he created the role a few years ago, and a video clip suggests he’s as qualified as anyone to play the braying, camel-faced dowager. When you think of it, anyone in this role is going to need a wig and a corset, so being a natural-born woman doesn’t necessarily confer that much of an advantage. It’s a campy, juicy part to begin with, and Bedford by all accounts doesn’t take any extra liberties with it. He doesn’t even raise the pitch of his voice a single notch–that was probably the director’s idea, and he seems to take direction well!

EDITOR’S NOTE: While UMS is interested in increasing the opportunities to see theater in Ann Arbor through creative partnerships, we are in no way replacing our regular theater series with these screenings. Like Sally, we are also avid proponents of actual “boots-on-the-ground” theater, and look to high definition screenings as a way to bring high quality, professional productions to our area that might not otherwise tour to our neck of the woods.