THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, by Oscar Wilde, directed by Richard Monette, with Donald Carrier, Graham Abbey, Michelle Giroux, Claire Jullien, Patricia Collins, Domini Blythe, Brian Tree and Bernard Hopkins. Presented by the Stratford Festival at the Avon Theatre, Stratford. Runs in rep to November 4. $38.50-$67.50. 1-800-567-1600. Rating: NNN
The rarely performed four-act version of The Importance Of Being Earnest may have its low-energy moments -- Oscar Wilde trimmed it to the better-known three-act script at the request of actor-manager George Alexander -- but Richard Monette's production at Stratford is the funniest, most enjoyable production of the show we've seen in years.
The longer script changes some names -- Lady Bracknell is Lady Brancaster -- and adds a solicitor intent on collecting a debt, but its real strength is that it gives more background substance to the classic characters. Cecily, Jack Worthing's country ward, becomes a proto-feminist, while her governess, Miss Prism, uses her strong moral conviction as a buffer between herself and the world.
Monette works with a strong cast to play up the work's comedy, which is tinged with the nonsensically rational. Michelle Giroux's Gwendolen is given to posing as if she were a piece of statuary, and will clearly grow up to be a gorgon like her mother, Lady Brancaster (Patricia Collins).
Claire Jullien's impetuous, spoiled but charming Cecily is winning from the start, and both Graham Abbey's Algernon and Donald Carrier's Jack are sophisticated men-about-town adept at charming and bullying their way to success.
Domini Blythe's Prism is Scottish morality to the core, and all the funnier for it. Only Lady Brancaster feels out of place, for though Collins plays her as a swooping-voiced snob with a concern for money and social niceties, there's no real connection to the other characters, not even her daughter.