Summer theater in Maine falls into three categories — musicals, Shakespeare and children’s shows. An occasional mystery may be thrown in but that’s pretty much it, except at Bagaduce Theatre in Brooksville, where Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece “The Importance of Being Earnest” sparkles like a piece of polished sea glass.
First performed in 1895, the comedy about love, marriage and Victorian social expectations is still delightfully funny. In the hands of this talented cast, every clever note rings true, even though that is not something these characters value.
“I am sick to death of cleverness,” Ernest “Jack” Worthing tells his dear friend Algernon Moncrieff. “Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.”
While Jack and Algernon may not be fools, they behave rather foolishly when in the presence of their true loves, Gwendolen and Cecily, much to the disapproval of Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell.
Matt Falber (Algernon) and Jed Peterson (Ernest/Jack) work beautifully together. Their fine performances gives Wilde’s verbal fencing a musical quality. Both actors capture the rhythm of the playwright’s language perfectly and seriously embrace Wilde’s disdain for being serious. They are a delight to watch.
Isabella Etro (Gwendolen) and Lauren Elwood (Cecily) give pleasing performances as young women struck by Cupid’s arrow but unsure of the proper course of action. Both college students, the women give confident portrayals but are at their best in their scenes together trying to figure out if the men they love are truly earnest.
The role of Lady Bracknell is one of the finest ever written for an actress. Monique Fowler is formidable as the family matriarch. Just by tipping her hat brim in one direction or another, Fowler signals the lady’s frequent disapproval and occasional approval of what other characters say or do.
Fowler, who brought Emily Dickinson vividly to life last season, shows not a hint of the poet’s sweet nature. In fact, her Lady Bracknell is such a force of nature, theatergoers sit up straighter in their seats when she flounces on to the stage. While Fowler could have overwhelmed the younger, less experienced Etro and Elwood, she instead graciously lets them perform in her wake.
Donna Snow (Miss Prism) is delightful as the governess who neatly ties up the plot. Snow is so convincing, it’s as if she stepped out of an episode of Masterpiece Theatre. Snow rounds out the cast along with Randall Simmons, Bryan Lescord and Alan Estes.
Director Patricia Conolly uses the small theater constructed in a former barn to great advantage. Although this is a talky play, it never looks static as Conolly keeps the characters moving.
The sets, designed by Fowler and General Manager John Vivian, are lovely but it is Fowler’s lush costumes and hats that firmly set the story in Victorian England and add depth to each character.
Fowler and Vivian, who founded Bagaduce Theatre two years ago, may not have recreated summer stock theater in Maine, but they certainly are channeling its spirit. From the late 1920s through the early 1960s, actors from New York City and Boston headed to northern New England to escape the city heat for summer theater companies along the coast and further inland.
These theaters, including the Ogunquit Playhouse and Lakewood Theatre in Madison, were places where established veterans and novice actors worked side by side performing new works, comedies, musicals and the classics. Fowler and Vivian this summer are presenting full productions of two theatrical classics, bookended by a pair of two-person shows — “Love Letters” and “Vita and Virginia” — based on letters the characters wrote each other over many years. The other classic, Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” opens July 19.
Fowler Farm, a 150-acre coastal property on the Bagaduce River, is a unique setting for a summer theater company. The property, located at the end of a one-lane road, was first owned by a man named Andrew Webber. Rear Adm. J.W. Fowler, actress Fowler’s grandfather, purchased what was known as the Mills Point Farm in 1972 from Ada Mills Tapley, who was 92, according to the theater’s website.
Adm. Fowler’s son, Dr. William Fowler, designated the land forever wild when he placed it with the Castine Conservation Trust. It is now listed with the Maine Heritage Trust.
“The Bagaduce Theatre is dedicated to the Fowler family legacy,” a statement on the website says. “The public is encouraged to walk, birdwatch and generally enjoy the serenity of the property.”
Just remember to get back inside the barn in time for the clever merriment of “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde runs through July 8 at the Bagaduce Theatre, 176 Mills Point Road, Brooksville. For information, call 801-1536 or visit bagaducetheatre.org.
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