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Glenda Frank

Laughter in the Parks: Summer
in New York with "The Importance of Being Earnest"

“The Importance of Being Earnest,”
by Oscar Wilde, directed by Stephen Burdman, Founder and Artistic Director of New York Classical.
May 24- June 16 in Central Park, entrance on W. 103rd St. and Central Park West; Brooklyn Bridge Park , June 18- June 23, Fulton Ferry Landing on Pier 1;
June 25-30, 2019, Carl Schurz Park, East 86th Street, NYC.
Tuesdays to Sundays at 7pm;
Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays are traditional casting.
Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays are reversed.
For more information: https://nyclassical.org/earnest or OvationTix (866) 811-4111. Free.

New York Classical is celebrating its 20th season of free summer theatre in the New York City parks with – laughter and gender-bending. In its latest offering, the dress – not the hat – unmakes the man. In one version of “The Important of Being Earnest,” the Oscar Wilde masterpiece of comic invention, men are men, women are women, and often the twain collide, flirt, propose and battle for happiness. The plot is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl with marvelous blocking agents and lots of delicious deception. For years critics were under the mistaken belief that Wilde’s aphorisms and quips were funny nonsense. A few are – like the dental jokes (cut from this production)– but most find truth in hidden places and have a depth that is probably one secret of the play’s continual freshness.

Clay Storseth(Miss Prism) with at left, Jed Peterson (Gwendolen) and right, Ademide Akintilo (Cecily) in NY Classical Theatre's reversed gender The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Jody Christopherson.

New York Classical is playing it both ways. In its alternate version, men will be women and women men. It has become a tradition --often for best effect -- for Lady Bracknell  to be played by a man, which ironically heightens both female reality and parody. Here, actor John Michalski with his baritone voice and female gestures is ideally suited. He loves the role of the powerful matriarch, whose common sense sounds absurd. (She does not want her daughter married to a parcel!) He savors the dialogue, rolls it in around in his mouth, lingering on this or that syllabus for fine effect. He milks the pauses -- without ever slowing the scene. The other actors, with their crisp articulation, are on the same page, delighting in the wit and playfulness. The play is in excellent hands.

In the bender version Gwendolyn (Jed Peterson) and Cecily (Ademide Akintilo) tower over their slighter lovers. When Cecily says she is not “little” but more than usually tall for her age, the throw-away line gets a laugh. Kristen Calgaro as Ernest in town/Jack in the country and Connie Costanzo as the profligate Algernon Moncrieff are fine but not special. They don’t bring that something extra that would stamp their roles as distinctive or memorable, the way Janet McTeer did as Shakespeare’s Petruchio in Central Park three years ago (“The Taming of the Shew,” directed by Phyllida LLoyd.) The bespoke suits go a long way in adding credibility, but the male leads need more edge.

Ademide Akintilo (Algernon) and Connie Castanzo (Cecily) in NY Classical Theatre's the Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Jody Christopherson.

Attitude goes a long way in shaping a role, something Jeb Peterson recognizes as he minces, adds a little skip to his step, or lets his voice break with girlish emotion. Or the way Ademide Akintilo twists her hair flirtatiously and allows Cecily’s voice to play different notes as she reacts with surprise and rage, especially when she believes she and Gwendolyn are engaged to the same man. I loved it when the two crossed in front of each other like actors upstaging the competition and Gwendolyn pointed her fan like a knife.

Clay Storseth and Tina Stafford, in the minor roles of Miss Prism and the Reverend Chausible, are pitch perfect. The word “bees,” with its prolonged zz, has never been funnier – or more erotic—than when the reverend explains his curious metaphor about Miss Prism’s lips. And the shocked and delighted look on his face when Miss Prism takes his arm for a stroll! Kate Goehring as Merriman, the butler, offers an impressive performance -- stiff, almost stylized. She has minutes to define her character and she brings it home over and over. Kudos to Director Burdman and Movement Coach Andrea Andresakis for those small movements of physical comedy that season the scenes. Gwendolyn steps back in horror from Ernest when she learns his given name is John Worthing, her hand to her heart. Jack accidentally elbows Algernon several times as he circles him during their food duel.

Jed Peterson (Gwendolen) and Kristen Calgaro(Jack) in NY Classical Theatre's reversed gender The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Jody Christopherson.

I did not see the straight version. Every time I had a free slot, the company was cross dressing, but friends tell me there are other delights, like the costume differences, the same outfits tailored for both the male and female frames. I did, however, manage the indoor and outdoor version, and I prefer the latter. Somehow the obstacles of passers-by, planes and traffic allowed the actors more deliberation and definition of the roles. Often the cast faced the audience to deliver their lines so the urban sounds were not interference. For those new to New York Classical, the company and audience move from one location to another as the audience regathers on the grass. The company calls this their panoramic theatre style. The backdrop is always lovely: nature changes the set. This is good theatre, in the spirit of Joe Papp’s original dream of bringing great works to all audiences. It’s free – but do make a contribution.

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