The Kung Fu Importance of Being Earnest
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
June 3, 2006
A friend once told me that Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest was "director proof," that is, it is so well written that no directorial concept can keep the inherent comedy from shining through. When approaching this Kung Fu Earnest, I confess I thought my friend would finally be proved wrong. However, what Timothy Haskell has conceived, Michael Gardner adapted and directed, and Qui Nguyen fight directed is an entertaining amalgamation of two very different genres. As long as you take this show for what it is—a cutting of Earnest interspersed with martial arts-style stage combat—and you don't come expecting to see a fully realized Earnest. The humor herein lies in what's left of Wilde's, and in the juxtaposition of the fights within that text.
For example, the tea scene has stood for over a century as a prime example of comic understatement. After they meet and discover they are both engaged to a man called Ernest, Cecily and Gwendolyn engage in a cat fight of epic proportions, all in subtext, while engaging superficially in a perfectly proper afternoon tea. In Kung Fu Ernest, the cat fight is physicalized, the subtext becomes text, and the verbal blows become physical blows. Is this Wilde? No, of course not, but as a hybrid it is fun to watch.
On the whole, I would have liked to have seen the company be more consistent with the style of Wilde—that rapid fire use of language as the primary force, where emotions are not so much on the sleeve as they are in the text. This would have heightened the contrast between the play and the stage combat. Jessi Gotta best captures this contrast—her Gwendolyn would work perfectly in a full production of Earnest. Cole Kazdin is less effective as Lady Bracknell. Instead of letting her dialogue trip lightly off her tongue, she tends to lay out each joke with a trowel. Since she is at least a generation too young for the role, it is quite possible that in an effort to show age she has made her speech weighty and slow. She still got laughs, but it is just not as funny as it could be. Kazdin is a good fighter, however. And, let's face it, how many age-appropriate Bracknells are there who can wield a cane like a samurai sword?
All the fights, and there are a good number of them, are staged by Nguyen with appropriate earnestness (sorry, pun intended). It is this very "seriousness" of the battles between Wilde's characters that heightens the hilarity. One move off a wall, executed by Algernon (Stephen Dale) is pure Jackie Chan funny/violent. Not all the moves are executed cleanly, but when you are viewing literally hundreds of moves, you are bound to see some glancing blows. These are good actor-combatants, if not stunt actors.
Christiane T. Chan comes close. He is perfectly Wildean as both manservants, Lane and Merriman (a typical doubling) and his numerous combats seem flawlessly executed: you ache when he gets beaten and revel when he triumphs.
Though a bit too long for my taste, this is good entertainment. Given that the strengths of the company as a whole lie with the combat, and that the intersection of the two genres is inherently funny, some further paring of text could work. It would be lovely if Gardner could find earlier cuts and restore the final line of the play. But, if you don't know the play you don't miss the line—you don't need to know Earnest to enjoy the Kung Fu version.