Budding theatre company sets the time-honored classic in a unique outdoor space
By Libby Nicolay
Oscar Wilde’s Victorian-era classic The Importance of Being Earnest has charmed audiences and inspired theatre writers for generations. The Larking House, one of Orange County’s youngest theatre companies, is breaking ground in their first full season by bringing the British classic to the outdoors in their first Backyard Summer Series installment.
‘Earnest’ is a farce following two wealthy, ostentatious fellows, Jack and Algernon, who each have their eyes on a pretty young lady; for Jack, it’s Algernon’s niece, Gwendolyn, and for ‘Algy’, it’s Jack’s ward, Cecily. When both women state their desire to marry a man named Ernest, the two men each come up with their own ruse to become the perfect Ernest in spite of one another and, thus, struggle to keep all their lies in order. Hilarity ensues as the characters become entangled in their own web of deception, disguise, and mistaken identity. The play has long been held as an address of the haughtiness of the upper class and of the flawed social class system that influenced Britain’s Victorian era.
Given the popularity of the play, director Matt Caballero's job has consisted of finding ways to make this production unique. He says it requires a delicate balance between honoring the playwright’s words while pursuing his own vision, and the notion that "you must constantly consider what sets your own vision apart from what has been envisioned for the show before,” especially if it's a work that’s been produced as often as this one.
The Larking House already boasts a unique vision. The company formed during the pandemic - first online as a digital theatre space, then later hosting performances out of a garage. The company has steadily grown and now features a residency program for young artists as well as their distinctive online Playwright’s Intensive. Lizzy McCabe, Executive Artistic Director of The Larking House, is eager to see the company become an incubator for new works and local playwrights, and a place where emerging artists can find paid, meaningful opportunities to collaborate.
The Larking House is largely ensemble-based, meaning that many of the cast and crew of ‘Earnest’ are already close collaborators and friends. Caballero emphasized the perks of working with trusted friends with whom there’s already an established bond, and especially on a show where the actors’ fearlessness only makes the comedy funnier. This has given the cast the opportunity to try bold, new things with one another on stage and truly lean into the show’s absurdity.
Another unique aspect of this production is that, as part of Larking House’s Backyard Summer Classic Series, the show will be performed outside in a backyard. This choice gives the show a further sense of coziness and intimacy, although it brings some expected challenges as well. It’s not very often that stage actors are asked to mind the hot sun, deal with bugs, or consider what kind of shoes won’t slip when running on grass. Fortunately, the cast has been having fun with the extra challenges and taking them in stride as they bring this story to life.
Along with the intimacy of the venue, the audience can also expect themed refreshments and live music as they’re ushered into the space. Audiences will have no trouble imagining themselves in Jack’s countryside Manor House alongside the characters as they’re invited into and transported right into the “lush” and “ethereal” world of the play.
When asked why the play has remained a standard in the theatrical canon for such a long time, Caballero noted the clever humor in Wilde’s writing. He said, “There’s such a colorful blend of sarcasm, double entendres, circumstantial comedy, and there’s even a bit of room for slapstick.” With such a broad use of smart-witted comedy, its humor has endured for generations. There’s something in this play to make everyone laugh. And - as Caballero forewarned future audiences: expect to hear a whole lot of laughter.
He also mentioned that, through Oscar Wilde’s genius, we can watch these zany, over-the-top characters fool around and yet, still find their humanity. In them, we see people we may know in real life. We might even see ourselves in them. This play holds the essence of theatre itself - that underneath the buffoonery, these characters are human, just like us.
Wilde was a huge proponent of “art for art’s sake”; that ‘true’ art should be devoid of any other socio-political agenda or moral lesson. With that in mind, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is promised to offer theatregoers a light-hearted, whimsical theatre experience, full of easygoing entertainment and much-needed laughs.
Libby Nicolay is a writer, literary manager, and local theater enthusiast working in the entertainment industry throughout Orange County and beyond.
‘The Importance of Being Earnest’
The Larking House Backyard, Anaheim, CA
July 20 - August 5, 2023