Aris’ ‘Importance of Being Earnest’ bewilders

John Ammerman (from left), Tamia Fair and Phil Mann appear in the Aris Theatre production of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest."

Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Fern Hunt

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John Ammerman (from left), Tamia Fair and Phil Mann appear in the Aris Theatre production of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest."

Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Fern Hunt

Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Fern Hunt

One of the last theatrical productions I saw prior to the COVID-19-related shutdown of March 2020 was a perfectly straightforward and sufficient rendition of the Oscar Wilde classic “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Theatre Buford. I’ve seen the play more than my fair share of times before, to be sure, but even though I wasn’t officially reviewing it, I thought I’d check it out again anyway, given its capable cast (including Shannon Eubanks, Barrett Doyle and Joanna Daniel) and director (Tess Malis Kincaid).

Now here we are, nearly two years later, and what happens to be among the first shows I’m seeing — and officially reviewing — since our local troupes began getting back to live and in-person business last fall? No, not Actor’s Express’ “Intimate Apparel” or Georgia Ensemble’s “Vanity Fair,” both of which were planning to open this month but have been postponed due to the ongoing pandemic. And, no, not Aris Theatre’s contemporary Welsh drama “Fighting Words,” either, which was scheduled for and then shuttered back in early 2020.

Why, instead, it’s Aris’ iteration of Wilde’s Victorian-era comedy of manners “The Importance of Being Earnest,” for Pete’s sake! Is it just me, or should there be some kind of stipulation preventing any two Atlanta theater companies from producing the same piece of popular or well-known material in the same few years — unless there are particular actors of interest in this version, perhaps, or a particularly unique directorial approach to that one?

Under the direction of Aris co-founding member Kathleen McManus, there’s nothing especially unique about casting a man in drag as the imperious society matron Lady Bracknell. (The late Georgia Shakespeare had done that much in its 2012 staging of the comedy.) There are far too many qualified Atlanta actresses we haven’t seen on stage for far too long to waste such a juicy role on such a glorified gimmick. McManus is one of them herself, and that she assigns the part to her (not untalented) husband, John Ammerman, is somehow doubly dubious.

That leaves Aris’ “Earnest” with a bizarre “steampunk” concept as its only distinguishing feature. While the characters are primarily costumed (by Nancye Quarles Hilley) in glamorous finery appropriate to the play’s original period (1895), several of them are also prone to taking selfies and texting messages on their iPhones. Doors on either side of the set (by Harley Gould) resemble those of a bank vault. And one of the housekeepers here takes the shape of a robotic teapot and serving cart (designed by Kyle Crew’s props team and operated by Glenn Orange).

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Aris Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" features Jordan Mitchell and Maggie Beker.

Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Fern Hunt

Aris Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" features Jordan Mitchell and Maggie Beker.

Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Fern Hunt

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Aris Theatre's "The Importance of Being Earnest" features Jordan Mitchell and Maggie Beker.

Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Fern Hunt

Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Fern Hunt

The show is staged from the impressive digs of the Academy Theatre in Hapeville, and the experienced Ammerman’s sheer presence lends the proceedings a certain gravitas not to be found elsewhere in a largely unknown but fairly agreeable cast of newcomers. Jordan Mitchell and Phil Mann portray the eligible bachelors, Jack and Algernon, both of whom resort to a lot of affable subterfuge (or “Bunburying,” as Wilde so famously describes it) in the interest of wooing a pair of fetching ingenues.

Their respective love interests are played by Maggie Beker and Tamia Fair. Jessica Fern Hunt and Dan Reichard share a few mildly amusing moments as a giddy governess and a muddled minister. K. Ken Johnston is the sardonic butler, who, in one scene, engages in a dance routine with that mechanized Mrs. Potts-like contraption.

It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen in any other “Importance of Being Earnest,” that’s for sure — if hardly the most earnest reason for its being, yet again.


THEATER REVIEW

“The Importance of Being Earnest”

Through Sunday. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. $30. Academy Theatre, 599 N. Central Ave., Hapeville. 404-474-8332, www.aristheatre.org.

Bottom line: A bit of a drag, and slightly bland to boot.