This weekend a friend and I got to go see Plosive Productions' The Importance of Being Earnest at the Gladstone. I have had a bit of a soft spot for the play since I was a teenager (when, by way of illustrating something in the middle of an after-dinner conversation, my dad once got me to read through the Lady Bracknell interrogation scene with him. Something to do with his wondering how I would decide to deliver the line "A ... handbag?!?")
It's a terribly clever script, of course, packed with so many one-liners and quotes and aphorisms and tight little reversals and verbal fireworks that you're almost certain to get a laugh out of at least a tenth of them, no matter what you do. After that tenth, the rest of the laughs have to do with how good your actors are. And this production had some solid actors - leading the pack were Stewart Matthews as Jack and Garrett Quirk (what a terrific name, especially for this show) as Algy.
But - but - oh, I can't go any further into the show, really, without addressing the looming, unavoidable thing that's breathing down my neck. I have to get this out of the way. For some reason, God knows why, the director (David Whitely) decided to set the play in British India. And in the 1920's, which is sort of peripheral. Okay. . . fine, upperclass twits are upperclass twits wherever - and whenever - you go in the Empire. Global search and replace London to Calcutta, Shropshire to the Punjab, Victoria Station to Howrah Station, etc. There's an extensive glossary in the program to explain all of the replacements, and I have to be impressed at the research that went into it: looking up a Calcutta cultural equivalent of "the Empire Theatre" or "Willis'."
But I mentioned to my friend, going into the theatre, that I was really curious to figure out why they had decided to do that. As it turned out, the setting didn't change anything, really. The characters are all the same, the story rattles along as archly and cleverly as ever. Except that it was set in India, and the servants popping in and out were Indian. Oh, and then every so often they parachuted in an inexplicable sitar player (Sheldon Heard). Only in the second half: at one point he comes out and plays for a minute or so, when the tea trays come out and Gwendolen and Cecily are being frosty. Then he abruptly stops playing and scurries off stage, presumably because he senses a fight brewing between the two women, although it's not that clear. Then at another point, the lights go dim on the side of the stage where the action is taking place and for no discernible reason he comes out, settles down, and plays while Henna Kaur Sodhi, playing the servant Merriman, performs an Indian classical dance. Don't get me wrong, she was beautiful to watch and an excellent dancer. But what was she doing in the middle of the scene? When the dance was finished, they walked off, the lights went up, and Algy and Jack were still sitting in the garden eating muffins.
Disconcerting though the slight stabs at "Indian-ness" were, the crowning silliness came at the end, when after everything's come to its frothy conclusion, the servants came back out with a bunch of colourful scarves, the music came up, and my friend nudged me. "They're not going to do a Bollywood number, are they?" she asked. I didn't say anything. We both knew the answer. And they did. A slightly haphazard and rather white Bollywood dance number, complete with one of the actors lip-synching some of the vocals, and Lady Bracknell doing hip shimmies.
It was jarring, it was weird, and it came close to driving the entirety of the rest of the play out of our heads. And it went on just that bit too long, with the actors dancing around and clapping in time and waving their scarves around.
It occurred to me what the reasoning might have been: In this day and age, where do you find a romantic comedy that hinges on social standing but in Bollywood? Yup, The Importance of Being Earnest is a great plot for a Bollywood movie, a la Bride and Prejudice. But it seems to me that if you're going to do that, you should go all the way. Get an Indian cast, get someone to write you a couple of catchy tunes, and reimagine the play. The way this turned out, it's like someone had the idea, but then had to invent ways to fit the India theme in so the Bollywood dance number at the end would have had some setup. It didn't work.
Which is a shame, because there was some solid acting, as I said. Stewart Matthews was a lot of fun as Jack - and his timing, especially paired with Garrett Quirk as Algy, was really impressive. He's a really good comic actor, and the two of them pulled off, physically, the same sort of quick, clever wit as is in the dialogue. And Quirk's characterization of Algy was great - he was a completely disarming insouciant rake, and someone ought to register his devilish smile as a deadly weapon (which he deployed knowingly.) In the first half he spoke too fast at times, tripping himself up and burying some of the dialogue, but he settled into it in the second half.
Bronwyn Steinberg, as Cecily, was adorably bubbly, and her scene with Algy, where she explains to him that in her diary they've been engaged for months, was great. I thought Katie Bunting's Gwendolen was a little severe at first, but got used to her by the end of the play. Kel Parsons' Lady Bracknell wasn't quite the force of nature she could have been - some of her great lines ("To lose one parent..." for example) would have benefitted from a pause, or a reaction. Something to set them up before delivery.
But as we walked out, my friend said, "I can't remember the play now. All I can remember is that Bollywood bit."