Kevin Riordan: An earnest undertaking in Collingswood

Jean Brooksand Justin Scott rehearsea scene asLady Bracknell and Algernon Moncrieffin the Collingswood Shakespeare Company's adaptationof Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest."
Jean Brooksand Justin Scott rehearsea scene asLady Bracknell and Algernon Moncrieffin the Collingswood Shakespeare Company's adaptationof Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest." (MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 08, 2011

If Romeo and Juliet can be set in Miami, why can't The Importance of Being Earnest take place in Collingswood?

And why not have esteemed playwright Oscar Wilde and people's poet Walt Whitman share their impressions of the show as it unfolds in front of the audience?

"I think Oscar would be . . . bemused," says Dennis Cobourn, who's playing Wilde in the Collingswood Shakespeare Company's imaginative new production of Earnest. "He'd arch an eyebrow."

Whitman is probably smiling, too; "Walt was trying to push out the boundaries," observes actor David Scott Taylor, who plays the poet. "He wanted to break the norm."

Cobourn, 35, of Philadelphia, and Taylor, 61, of Clayton, are helping to bring Wilde's classic comedy of manners to pungent life at the Tatem-Shields American Legion auditorium on Atlantic Avenue.

Director Gerald van Wilgen invites me on a recent evening to watch his capable cast begin "off-book" rehearsals (without scripts).

This may be community theater, but it's far from "let's put on a show"; van Wilgen is an experienced director, and his actors are working hard.

The director makes notes in his copy of the script, and I sit on a folding chair amid a tangle of cables and savor the imperious Lady Bracknell (Jean Brooks) as she confronts her vacuous daughter Gwendolen (Helen O'Rourke).

The clueless ingenue, inexplicably smitten by the name Ernest, has just accepted a proposal of marriage from a naive young fellow whose real name is John (Mike Tait). Her mother will have none of it - at least until she can subject the would-be suitor to a withering and hilarious cross-examination.

"We are watching as Walt and Oscar watch the play, too," van Wilgen explains, pointing out the two armchairs (unoccupied during this particular rehearsal) on the compact stage.

"More snootiness!" he tells his actors at one point.

"Have more fun with it," he says at another.

The 45-year-old director, who is Dutch and lives in Voorhees, came up with the idea of "framing" his Earnest with partially scripted, partly improvised conversations between the playwright and the poet.

"The idea is that Wilde has written Earnest as a gift to Whitman," he says. "And they're watching the first performance."

Although Wilde, the aristocratic aesthete, really did meet Whitman, the earthy sensualist, while the latter lived in Camden, Earnest didn't debut until three years after the poet's death in 1892. And the standard locales in the play include London and Hertfordshire, not Philadelphia and Collingswood.

No matter.

"Their connection was important in literary history, and Whitman was an internationally recognized figure from Camden County," notes Ruth Rouff, the Shakespeare company's publicist. "A lot of people don't know about their meeting, and it's something they should know."

It's also fun to watch Wilde's characters as Americans, rather than Brits.

Take Lady Bracknell, who's every bit as grandiose as a Rittenhouse (rather than Berkeley) Square sort of diva. "She's very domineering," says Brooks, who describes herself as "a woman of a certain age" and a "full-time banker" in real life.

O'Rourke, 23, who lives in Cherry Hill, says the production's innovations "don't really change the nature of the play."

She's right: Her scenes with her mother and suitor crackle with the playwright's acerbic wit.

So does a later scene between the gleefully foppish Algernon (Justin Scott) and the John who wishes to be Ernest, if only to win his beloved's hand.

"He's a lot more sincere than Algernon," Scott, a 25-year-old Philadelphian, says with a dash of Wilde-ness.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com. Read the metro columnists' blog at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" opens for six performances beginning Friday. www.collingswoodshakespeare.org

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