There’s a telling line at the opening of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Algernon Montcrieff, a bachelor whose white lies preserve his ability to lead a double life, is playing music. He tells his manservant: “I don’t play accurately – anyone can play accurately – but I play with wonderful expression.”
In a funny way, that describes the Aquila Theatre Company, which presented Wilde’s most famous work Wednesday at the Maine Center for the Arts in Orono. Traditionally, the New York City-based troupe takes the classics and filters them through the clever bends and turns of its smart artistic vision. Aquila’s version of “The Importance of Being Earnest” was, thankfully, no exception, and it’s tempting to assert that Wilde himself would have applauded the airy, plucky, modern approach to the script.
In Wilde’s own notes, he names the time of the play as “the present,” and Aquila director Robert Richmond took him at his word. By setting the Victorian play with a contemporary backdrop, complete with pop music and hip costumes, the production jump-starts Wilde’s insight into social spheres and relationships pertinent more than 100 years after the show first debuted.
If it weren’t for the expert talent of the nine-person cast, it would be easy for all the silliness onstage to spin toward triteness. For instance, Kenn Sabberton’s cross-dressing Lady Bracknell (a la Church Lady on “Saturday Night Live”) and Lindsay Rae Taylor’s ethereal Cecily were presented with a comforting combination of alacrity and discipline. When Guy Oliver-Watts, as Algernon, and Richard Willis, as Jack, used the set changes to show their wild-boy cavorting and dancing, they nicely expanded the show by presenting activity that typically takes place offstage. It was great fun, and the half-house audience found ample opportunity to laugh.
Of course it sounds obvious, but the most important element of Wilde’s play is the language. It’s densely witty, and every word pours rushingly and vitally into the next. Aquila handles the script deftly, which is not only a pleasure but a treasure.
Earlier in the day, members of the cast met with theater students from Old Town High School for a master class. Many of the students showed up for Wednesday night’s performance – adding extra energy to the hall – and clearly noted the fierce application of principles they learned that day. What they also surely observed is that Aquila, whose actors hail from both America and Britain, is broad in talent and triumphantly economic in presentation. (The group stays within a prescribed performing space that frames its productions.)
Aquila Theatre Company has been a regular visitor to this region in the last few years with engaging productions of “Much Ado About Nothing,” “King Lear,” “The Odyssey” and “Julius Caesar.” “The Importance of Being Earnest” is yet another installment that certifies the “wonderful expression” of its intelligence and cogency.