earnest photo

SSU Theatre Arts

What makes the two young women of Victorian England say “yes” to the men who have come to court them? It’s not their males’ social status, character, charm or good looks, but their (supposed) name: Ernest.

There is, both women confess, something in that name that inspires “absolute confidence,” so much so that one bride-to-be in her diary declared herself engaged to her Ernest before ever having actually met him. When the two lovebirds do meet, she tells her bewildered suitor that they’ve really been engaged three months, adding that she briefly called off the engagement once because “it would hardly have been a really serious engagement if it hadn’t been broken off at least once.”

Such is the high-mannered silliness of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” now playing through Nov. 9 at Sonoma State University. The cast delights with a version set in India, and set designer Peter Crompton has given them a handsome, adaptable backdrop in which to play out their verbal shenanigans.

Leave it to the English to delight in saying things that so confound, and leave it to Wilde to pack so much frivolous wit into three acts. As director Judy Navas writes in her notes, he was “the Seinfeld of his time.”

Twenty-first Century Americans, especially those hooked on “Downton Abbey,” will see here familiar figures, including the English matriarch, played with reserved authority by Cat Bish as Lady Bracknell. But with Wilde, even the familiar can become a bit bizarre. For example, when Lady Bracknell learns that her daughter’s suitor has lost both his parents, she expresses disapproval: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

The cast especially shone in Act II, as the two young women briefly become antagonists because they erroneously think they are both engaged to the same “Ernest.” When that mistake is corrected, they soon learn that their suitors are actually named Jack and Algernon. Leave it to Wilde to resolve this and other dilemmas.

Bravo to cast members Rusty Thompson, Katee Drysdale, JoAnn Amos, Angel Hernandez, Renee Hardin, Dominic Dei Rossi, Tristan Atkinson and Allan Chornak.

As well, special recognition goes to sitar musician Peter Van Gelder and puppeteers Connor Pratt and Wyatt Jadro.

Crompton’s simple columned backdrop is a delight to behold as it transforms, first with the use of sheer drapes, then intricately cut panels and finally an eight-armed goddess.

The play continues this weekend and next with evening shows Thursday through Saturday and Sunday matinees. There also is a 10 a.m. show on Tuesday. For tickets and more information, click here.

— Robert Digitale