Nine. Nine sets of shoes, nine mismatched chairs and nine empowering ladies adorned the Baker Theater stage on Thursday, Sept. 26. These actresses put on a spectacular all-female version of The Importance of Being Earnest, written by Oscar Wilde, from Sept. 26 through Sept. 29. The comedy, written in 1895, describes the story of two young men, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, who both create alter egos named Ernest in attempt to win the hearts of the two women who, conveniently, only seem to love men named Ernest. Director and assistant professor of Theatre & Dance Jim VanValen’s version of the production, set in the 19th century, featured an array of gorgeous Victorian-style costumes, while also incorporating modern vernacular and modern music. These extra touches were just the icing on the cake that added to the show’s mystique.
The night began with a spotlight on a row of chairs of various styles positioned downstage. One by one, each actress danced onstage barefoot wearing a vibrant colored robe to the beat of whimsical music by the Vitamin String Quartet, though Gwen Wilkie ‘20 composed all the original music featured in the show. Each robe was decorated with the actress’s name on it. The short prologue provided insight into how our stars got into character, from arriving to the theater, putting on make-up and getting their hair done. As each actress took off their robe and put on their shoes, the final symbolic step of transforming from their “street persona” into their character was complete. “[The robes] let us see them as actors, which kind of plays into the whole fact that the show’s about being insincere and fake in a way,” said audience member Jessica Jacoby ’17, sister of Kylee Jacoby ‘20, who played Cecily Cardew in the show.
Holly Cate, a faculty member of Muhlenberg College, who played the role of Lady Bracknell, reflected on how that starting scene was the brain-child of VanValen. “Jim really wanted that feel of what is the actors’ process, and how do we get into character, and what does it mean to start a show?”
VanValen’s decision to make this production an all-female one had a very big impact on the audience.
Jacoby commented, “I love that the cast is all women. It kind of goes back to [Shakespearean] times, when it would be all men and men playing female characters. It’s like, ‘Okay, why not? Why can’t we have time for that?’”
Lisa Lovelace, an audience member and relative of one of the cast members, added, “I love the all-female cast; that’s how shows were often done long ago, and it adds to the humor of it. It’s wonderful.”
Kieva Mark ‘21 said, “I love the all-female cast. I think it’s such a great take on the show.”
Additionally, cast member Heather Dutton ’20 explained, “Jim could’ve quite honestly directed an all-female production of any show and I would’ve been excited about it.”
Clearly an all-female production evokes a positive response at Muhlenberg College.
While the whole show overall is a comedy, many of the laughs seemed to be in response to Dutton’s performance in the role of Algernon Moncrieff, the wise-cracking, lady’s man best friend of the main character, Jack Worthing. Time after time, it seemed that audience members could not stop talking about Dutton’s spectacular acting.
Michael Colasurdo ‘23 commented, “The Importance of Being Earnest is probably one of my favorite shows ever, and [Dutton] playing Algernon really added to it. The physicality of Algernon was just so good, and she’s very lanky so it’s very natural for her to be so physical.”
Diana Abrams ’23 said, “She [Dutton] was so funny! I could not stop laughing.”
When asked about what drew Dutton to the role, she explained, “I actually hadn’t seen the show and knew very little about it, but after reading the script, I fell in love with it. I specifically fell in love with Algernon from the start. I’m so fascinated by that character, and by his enthusiasm for life and his honesty and commitment to indulging the different parts of himself.”
Cate was also a big hit on stage. Cate said she feels blessed to be a professor in the Muhlenberg Theater Department because of the opportunities that she gets to be onstage with students.
“It’s a huge benefit that the department offers me because actors should act,” said Cate.
When asked why she was drawn to the role of Lady Bracknell, she replied, “She’s so fun because she’s very smart, but with these blinders on.”
Cate also explained that while she was very intrigued by the character, figuring out exactly how to play her was a whole different story. “It took a while for me to find the right way to portray her because of how she’s daffy at times but also how she’s really acute. I really just had to play with it.”
Luckily, Cate was given every opportunity to do just that. “Our rehearsals were really playful, and that helped. I was able to go over and do the scenes and my lines different ways until I figured it out.”
One might wonder if working with students proved to be a challenge for a seasoned actor like Cate, but that was not the case. “For me it’s a great honor to be on the stage with them. We’re a really high-powered training program, and they’re really good! And I never think, ‘Oh, I’m working with students.’ I think, ‘Oh, I’m working with really good actors.”’
Cate explained that she felt blessed to be able to not only have fun with this experience, but also learn from it. “It’s fun to be in a show and teach acting because it’s humbling. And I can say in pure honesty in my classes, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m struggling with that, too.’ And I think that’s useful.”
That’s not to say that the other actresses weren’t fantastic as well. Laura Santo ‘20, who played Lane, the manservant, was especially funny. Every time she would enter and exit the stage, she would do a little butt wiggle and the audience would erupt in laughter.
Melanie McCoy ‘22 played the lead of John Worthing and showed great promise with her developing presence leading the stage. Her stoic attitude and steady demeanor anchored a cast intent on drawing the humor out in every scene. Every cast member, in their own way, contributed to making this play a success.
The Importance of Being Earnest was an enjoyable evening with a cast one can look forward to seeing in a future Muhlenberg College Theater production. For a listing of future plays and performances, go to muhlenberg.edu/theatre&dance.