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viernes, 28 de agosto de 2009

Lady Bracknell Is Back, With a Slightly Unladylike Air


New York Times / Theater








August 26, 2009
THEATER REVIEW 'THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST'
Lady Bracknell Is Back, With a Slightly Unladylike Air
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
STRATFORD, Ontario — As the superb classical actor Brian Bedford proves in the splendid production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival here, when it comes to inhabiting the imperious spirit of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, being biologically female is immaterial.
Possibly this should not be surprising. Wilde’s monstrous paragon of patrician British matronhood, who takes propriety to the point of absurdity and well beyond, has a personality so formidable it all but obliterates gender. Sex — her own and everybody else’s — is far less important to Lady Bracknell than matters of decorum, respectability and breeding. (That’s breeding as in upbringing, thank you, not procreating.) If a two-headed hermaphrodite arrived in her drawing room with the proper social bona fides, she would coolly offer a cucumber sandwich. Or rather, two cucumber sandwiches.
When Mr. Bedford strides onstage in the full regalia of a Victorian gentlewoman, a tuft of angry-looking tulle crowning his head, you instantly come to share Lady Bracknell’s indifference to insignificant matters, so forcefully does he communicate the implacable will of this glorious theatrical creation. Mr. Bedford knows that there is no room for low camping in high comedy. And while “in matters of great importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing,” as one of the play’s characters asserts, Mr. Bedford manages to accommodate both. His performance is as impeccably stylish as it is thoroughly sincere.
As such, it is very funny. Mr. Bedford is not the first man I’ve seen in the role; he is not the second either. But he is by many measures the finest. The great Canadian actor William Hutt, also a Stratford mainstay, played Lady Bracknell to acclaim in the 1970s. Mr. Bedford’s turn can be seen as a homage to his colleague, who died in 2007 after 39 seasons with the festival. But knowledge of this history is hardly necessary to delight in the performance, and the production, which Mr. Bedford also directed.
Despite its brilliantly filigreed plot and rich trove of perverse aperçus, “The Importance of Being Earnest” can be heavy going in lesser performances, its cascading witticisms coming across as freeze-dried and familiar. But Mr. Bedford and his cast give it a bright bloom, for the most part delivering the ornate language with a purifying gleam that makes it sing.
In less precise productions, for instance, the characters can sound like interchangeable stand-ins for the author. Here the personality of each comes across with unusual distinctness. As Jack Worthing, the young man whose disturbingly vague parentage so inflames Lady Bracknell’s social sensibilities, Ben Carlson is comically priggish without losing his charm. He’s wonderfully natural, too, suggesting an understanding that Jack is the sanest person in this decorous madhouse, the lone character in the play whose feet are on the ground, at least intermittently.
The lovely Sara Topham, playing Jack’s would-be betrothed, Lady Bracknell’s daughter, Gwendolen Fairfax, captures the character’s delicate lunacy with refreshing ease. The dark timbre and slight burr in her voice recall Joan Greenwood in the brilliant Anthony Asquith movie from 1952. But the performance is not a carbon copy. Ms. Topham brings her own poised elegance to Gwendolen’s iron will, a miniature of her mother’s.
As Algernon Moncrieff and Cecily Cardew, the instantly smitten couple whose matrimonial hopes also hang on the question of a Christian name — both Gwendolen and Cecily insist on marrying a man named Ernest — Mike Shara and Andrea Runge make a comely pair, their matched blue eyes set twinkling in the giddy rapture of young love. Mr. Shara’s playing is a little too arch in the first act, and Ms. Runge does not always seem at ease with the rococo language, but these are small infelicities amid the generally assured style.
As the Rev. Canon Chasuble, Stephen Ouimette is a gallant comic foil to Sarah Dodd’s redoubtable, starchy Miss Prism, with her pinched mouth and surprised eyes.
But while she is absent for the entire second act, the indomitable Lady Bracknell dominates any production of Wilde’s play, and so the evening ultimately belongs to Mr. Bedford. The flutey phrasing of Edith Evans in the Asquith film tends to chime in my head whenever I see the play, creating a distracting echo — and making most Lady B’s seem like hollow also-rans. But Mr. Bedford’s interpretation makes for strong competition.
Without sacrificing a single of Lady Bracknell’s withering bons mots, he avoids the stridently arch and the obvious. A single word — “Found?” — spoken in a tone of hushed stupefaction sets the audience roaring no less than that peerless joke about losing both one’s parents seeming like “carelessness.” The trick to making a male Lady Bracknell into something more than a camp joke is to take her as seriously as she takes herself. That’s no mean feat, of course, but Mr. Bedford performs it with forthrightness that inspires admiration, riding the crests of Wilde’s language like a great galleon in full sail.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
By Oscar Wilde; directed by Brian Bedford; sets and costumes by Desmond Heeley; lighting by Kevin Fraser; music by Berthold Carrière; sound by Jim Neil. Presented by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival; Des McAnuff, artistic director. At the Avon Theater, 99 Downie Street, Stratford, Ontario; (800) 567-1600. Through Oct. 30. Running time: 2 hours 30 min.
WITH: Robert Persichini (Lane), Mike Shara (Algernon Moncrieff), Ben Carlson (John Worthing), Brian Bedford (Lady Bracknell), Sara Topham (Gwendolen Fairfax), Andrea Runge (Cecily Cardew), Sarah Dodd (Miss Prism), Stephen Ouimette (The Rev. Canon Chasuble), Merriman (Tim MacDonald) and Barbara Fulton (Maid).

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