MFA Acting students get ‘earnest’ in Wilde’s classic comedy

The School of Dramatic Arts’ newest production marries written comedy and physical comedy for a worthwhile night out in Pasadena.

The School of Dramatic Arts’ recent production of Oscar Wilde’s play at the Boston Court Pasadena features actors Kai Zhang as Lady Augusta Bracknell and Alcides B. Costa Jr. as Canon Frederick Chasuble. (Loreen Sarkis / Capture Imaging for USC SDA)

Theater is all about connection.

The School of Dramatic Arts’ recent production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” took that to heart.

Starting with director Finola Hughes’ venue of choice, Boston Court Pasadena offered a quaint yet effectively intimate setting for the performance Friday night.

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The simplicity of the set design was a breath of fresh air in the modern age of theater, where it seems every new production is trying to be meaninglessly funkier than its predecessors to no avail. On stage, a gold sofa sat on top of a red-gold carpet complimented by a tea set stage right and a coat hanger stage left, thrusting the audience into the wealthy manor of Algernon Moncrieff in late-1800s England. Audience members chose their own seats and were in luck because the curvature of the stage in relation to the house meant that they had a clear view from every angle.

Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” offers a variety of caricatures to depict his criticism of modern society, and it’s easy for productions to display them on a surface level, inevitably boring the audience with the blandness and repetitiveness of choices. Director Hughes ensured this wasn’t the case with her production, as every character introduced had a distinctiveness and memorable quality to them.

When the play opens, the audience is first met with the youthful Algernon Moncrieff, played by Deniz Himmetoglu, and the charismatic Jack Worthing, played by Krosby João Roza. Himmetoglu and Roza had no trouble depicting two argumentative-yet-close friends with their banter throughout the show. So, when they were later revealed to be long-lost brothers in Wilde’s twist at the end, the audience didn’t feel cheated, but more pleasantly surprised because the actors had done the work to build their relationship and make the revelation believable.

Mirroring the Moncrieff-Worthing duo, the devilishly seductive Gwendolen Fairfax, played by Megan Tomei, and the unmistakably blunt Cecily Cardew, played by Gabriella Weltman, held a hilariously entertaining battle of sass and wits in the second act. What made the interaction more engaging was the audience knowing that the man they’re verbally fighting tooth and nail over isn’t even the same person.

If there’s one thing the audience will remember from this specific production of Wilde’s timeless piece, it’s the portrayal of Gwendolen’s strict but practical mother Lady Augusta Bracknell, played by Kai Zhang. From the moment he first stepped onto the stage in a lavish black and white dress paired with an equally iconic feather headdress, the audience knew they were in for a treat.

Zhang covered all his bases, perfecting his falsetto tone for Bracknell’s lines that called for comedic emphasis as well as his intimidating demeanor to embody Bracknell’s high stature in society. Though comedic asides were given by multiple characters throughout the show, Bracknell’s asides take the cake, with life lessons to the audience layered under the intentional candidness of Zhang’s tone.

The play is set in late-1800s England, making the old-timey English accent an automatic prerequisite for this production. While this isn’t a show about who can do a better English accent, the inconsistency in maintaining the accent among cast members was a bit jarring and took the audience out of their suspension of disbelief at times.

The comedy in the play is undoubtedly rooted in Wilde’s clever dialogue and outrageous plot events, but actors can’t rely on just those features to put on a great production. They must do their part to bring the words to life and deliver them with their own special flair for the comedic intentions to truly shine through.

The actors often found ways to enhance their portrayals of the characters, most notably the overly flamboyant physicality of Roza (Jack) and the attention to specific syllables in dialogue by Tomei (Gwendolen). Her iteration of “Ma-MA” whenever she referred to Zhang (Lady Bracknell) was a subtle yet memorable addition to the production.

Despite a few stumbles, the audience could ultimately tell that the actors had great chemistry, especially in the ending scene. The big finale called for almost all of the characters to be on stage (including Chasuble, played by Alcides B. Costa Jr., and Miss Laetitia Prism, played by Beryl Liu, except for Devin Craig’s Lane/Merriman), and the audience could have easily been met with disorganized chaos in the worst way possible. Instead, director Hughes delivered clear and believable relationships, wrapping up the journey.

What made the end and, effectively, the entire show enjoyable was seeing how comfortable the actors were with each other in a relatively small cast of eight. Witnessing that connection between them in real time made driving to Pasadena to support the production so worth it.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” will present its final performance Tuesday, Jan. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at Boston Court Pasadena.

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