Oscar Wilde famously wrote of his greatest play, “It is written by a butterfly for butterflies.” This production of The Importance of Being Earnest, although buoyed by a pair of fine performances by Quinlan Fitzgerald and Alison Wilson, sinks under the weight of an error in understanding the play’s central figure, Lady Bracknell. Rebecca Mason, the senior BFA acting student who showed such comedic brilliance as Bottom in UCSB’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has here been encouraged to depart not only from tradition but also from any kind of good sense in an interpretation of Lady Bracknell.
As written by Wilde, Lady Bracknell’s pronouncements are a classic example of structural irony — in other words, the character does not, and must not, know that she is funny. From Mason’s first entrance, it was clear that this performance would depart radically from the conventional approach. Ordinarily, the role is presented, as Harold Bloom has written of the turn given by Dame Edith Evans, “as it must be performed, with Wagnerian severity and frowning high seriousness.” Mason takes the opposite tack, offering an ironic Lady Bracknell who laughs at her own jokes and who gets upset when things don’t go her way.
A carefree Hamlet could be okay, and Falstaff as an ascetic killjoy might be fine, but a self-aware Lady Bracknell? To paraphrase Gwendolen, “I am known for the gentleness of my disposition, and the extraordinary sweetness of my nature, but I warn you … you may go too far.”