The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde
Directed by David Hyde Pierce
Williamstown Theatre Festival
June 26 – July 14
Something about Williamstown Theatre Festival’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” just didn’t click for me. It was not for lack of ideas — several clever, a couple brilliant. It was the flow. I noticed it right away when the stage couldn’t seem to set up a rhythm with the laughter in the house. When a comedy is really cooking, a rhythm sets up. It’s a kind of play, this back and forth. When it is really good, it has a naturalness, even an inevitability. That did not happen in the performance I heard (July 4). Lines were often lost in the laughter; the house was often slow to respond, and once in a while the response seemed forced.
Accents varied. It could have been a good idea to try the hoodlum thing just because the play is so hoity-toity in British English. But the play depends on the aloofness of proper English, even the coldness of it. Lady Bracknell is the ultimate ice-queen. It’s very hard to do that with a gangster accent. Tyne Daly played it with a hint of disinterest, and she played it well. But for me the character is utterly composed. Ms. Daly sometimes seemed flustered. Still her presence is strong, and her voice makes you listen. Helen Cespedes as Cecily won me over. Her accent was not overdone, never a caricature. Marylouise Burke as Miss Prism was hilarious, and she alone was adept at playing the rhythm of the audience like a fiddle. All the actors were fine technicians and tried hard. The inconsistencies were not critical. It was the un-naturalness of the back and forth with the house that held me back.
So, some lovely, even delicious things that on another night might work better.
It was a sweet pleasure for me to hear two concerts performed by Aston Magna last month. The artists of Aston Magna are really pioneers. How many musicians can say they were involved in a process that changed the way that music is played in a fundamental way? There on the stage at Simon’s Rock, I saw old friends, Dan Stepner, Nancy Armstrong, John Gibbons, David Ripley — each of whom has had a significant part in the musical life of Boston for several decades now. Dan Stepner’s playing, now as always, pleases me mostly because of its sweetness. If you think there is something thin or astringent about Baroque violin playing, you need to listen to Dan Stepner. I have heard John Gibbons play the Bach “Goldberg Variations” in two Aston Magna concerts, and each time the experience has been a transcendent one. David Ripley absolutely devours the stage when he sings. His singing is speaking, and his speaking is singing. It was especially wonderful to hear Nancy Armstrong sing Purcell again. The intensity at the top of her voice that has made her an ideal creator of so many tragic Handel heroines was used to full effect in Purcell’s sublime “The Plaint”. No one else sings with more intensity than Nancy, and the intensity is through-going. It starts before the piece begins, and it ends after the piece concludes. You absolutely have to stay with it. Eric Hoeprich and Stephen Hammer played clarinet and oboe, not only with the great skill that years of mastering these older versions of the instruments has given them, but with a first-rate level of talent to begin with. I have often thought that some instrumentalists begin to impersonate their instruments, especially wind players, and these two seem completely wedded to the wooden objects they play.
There is always a lightness and ease to Aston Magna concerts. The audience and the players are easily connected. This outfit has an audience that really listens. I don’t hear this music as “early music” any more, as I might have twenty-five years ago. I just hear it as a beautiful, often rapturous, speech that is at home, perfectly comfortable with its own sound. These concerts have rhetorical elegance, even bliss, in the deep sense of identity present there. I am very proud to have known these people.