As a writer, Oscar Wilde is remembered chiefly for the biting wit and cunning humor that he wove into his works. The School of Theater and Film’s presentation of The Importance of Being Earnest brings all of the playwright’s Victorian charm to Portland State in a performance that does not fail to amuse.
The play follows the story of two pairs of star-crossed lovers, their romance thwarted by filial duties and—strangely enough—the two women’s infatuation with the name Ernest.
PSU student Devon Roberts took on the role of John Worthing, who—going by the name of Ernest during his visits to the city—has his identity brought into question when his friend Algernon finds that his cigarette case is inscribed with the name “Jack”. According to Roberts, Worthing is his first part within PSU’s theater program.
Though he was at first concerned with not making a good first impression, he found fast friends in the rest of the cast.
“All of our personalities are complimentary, so really, we just have a lot of fun,” Roberts said. “We get along, we all understand that there’s work to be done, but we also know how to have fun while we’re doing that work.”
Roberts added that, though he has enjoyed performing in the play, working with a century-old piece has presented some difficulties.
“It’s been really challenging, actually, to find all the layers and show all of them while still being in the decorum of the age and still being the proper, intelligent, witty people who still feel emotions. It’s been wonderful to dive into the words, but just very hard,” Roberts said.
Elena Afanasiev, who plays Gwendolen Fairfax—Jack’s fiancé and Algernon’s cousin—said that while she loved working with Wilde’s material, its complexity and nuances gave her a lot of theatrical ground to cover.
“I think it’s harder than Shakespeare, and I used to think Shakespeare was the hardest material to work with,” Afanasiev said. “There’s a lot of layers to it, which we’ve all been trying to dig in and find something every time.”
According to Afanasiev, Karin Magaldi, the play’s director, played a major role in helping the cast make the play their own.
“She cares about what the actors feel and she wants to discuss the play,” Afanasiev said. “She wants to discuss the layers behind the play, which I love, because we really have a great understanding of what the play is about.”
Karin Magaldi is also the associate director of the School of Theater and Film. Regarding the school’s decision to perform The Importance of Being Earnest, Magaldi said that institutions like PSU benefit from the performance of both modern works and plays from the canon. She added that the cast was enthusiastic about getting a chance to perform Wilde’s work.
According to Magaldi, some critics view Wilde’s plays as being surface-level or art for art’s sake.
“What’s amazing about this play is he has elements of that, but he has also elements of feminism and then he has has elements of ‘marriage is the ideal’, but then he undercuts that,” Magaldi said. “It’s a very smart play. It isn’t just about surfaces.”
A humorous part of the play’s production, Magaldi said, came with one actor’s inclusion of a corset in her costume. Putting on a corset, she explained, required several members of the cast to stand by so that the garment’s strings could be tightened.
“One night they pulled it tight and it just all broke,” Magaldi said. “So we know she was using the corset very effectively, but I said that you really don’t need to do it that tight, so that was funny.”
Sam Jones—who plays Reverend Canon Chasuble—talked about what it has been like to act the part of a character whose lines were written over a century ago.
“It’s not that much different from doing a play set in modern times…some of the language is a bit different, some of the manners are different…but it’s really universal, it’s held up really well,” Jones said.
According to Jones, a few things—including Magaldi’s direction—made the play stand out from other performances that he has been a part of.
“It’s a well-known show. It’s a very, very funny show. It’s well-loved. It’s got a really good cast; everyone’s right for the role, which doesn’t always happen, so that’s nice,” Jones said.
The school’s opening performance of The Importance of Being Earnest was on Feb. 27 in Lincoln Hall and the play will continue to run until Saturday, March 7.