Student Group Performs, Directs Oscar Wilde Play

Namrata Dev CM '19, Micaela Ferguson CM '17, and Julien Chien CM '17 perform "The Importance of Being Earnest" on March 27. (Romario Quijano • The Student Life)

Elegant cucumber finger-sandwiches, tall jugs of cold water, cutlery for a fancy meal, and butter in tiny glass jars were presented to students, parents, and faculty scattered around white tables as carts of more food wove through them. As the last of the cucumbers and bread finished, the overhead lights dimmed and Claremont McKenna College’s Under the Lights theatre group took the stage for their opening performance of "The Importance of Being Earnest: A Serious Comedy for Trivial People" at the Marion Miner Cook Athenaeum on Monday, March 27.

Under the Lights is a student-run acting group, with co-presidents Anoush Baghdassarian CM ’17 and Cassie Lewis CM ’17. Actors handled the light and sound, designed their costumes, and sourced set pieces such as the shiny sophisticated grey sofa which depicted the furniture of a fashionable London apartment, and the little tables that symbolized the gardens in the English countryside of the Victorian Era.

“Sometimes I wish we had more people to help out,” Lewis said. “But you learn a lot more than just acting, and we manage with what we have and hopefully it comes together."

The audience appreciated that the show was so heavily dependent on just the acting troupe.

"I thought it was a pretty good production, overall, especially because it was student run," said Brian Lina CM ’20. “It was uncomplicated on props and set up. But it made sense.”

The play began with Jack Worthing, played by Evan Boyer CM ’19, telling Algernon, played by Victor Parnyarskiy CM ’20, that he is able to come up to London for fun from his home in the country because he needs to rescue his made-up and wicked brother Earnest from unfortunate scandals. Jack changes his name to Earnest in the city.

Algernon is a charming and unserious man who teases Jack by stealing his cigarette case and declares he is the only person in the room who can eat cucumber sandwiches made for his Aunt Lady Bracknell. Parnyarski’s Cheshire Cat grin and confidence on stage suit the character. Boyer’s character contrasts Algernon nicely. He’s serious, he dresses somberly, and even his face is utterly earnest.

Many of the characters took themselves seriously despite their comic qualities. Miss Prism, the governess that Jack employs to care for his young ward, presents herself as someone with prim morals. She is mortified when Jack later suggests that he may be the illegitimate child of Miss Prism. But her quavering voice, and fluttering steps became uncertainly flirtatious when Dr. Chausible, the rector of Jack’s country, played by Julien Chien CM ’17, arrives on stage.

Chien’s bellowing rough voice, the over-eagerness in his body language and his tendency to draw out words when he declares that if he were Miss Prism’s student he would “hang upon her lips” and then clarifies that his words were “a metaphor … drawn from bees” command the stage. 

“Comedy doesn’t work unless the actor really, really, believes in the realness of it," Lewis said. “There are times that something really dramatic or sad happens, but actually the scenario of it is very funny, and when the actor believes it’s sad, the audience finds it funnier."

Isabelle Rogers PO '20 appreciated the use of physical comedy.

“Some of the speeches were a little jarring, but I thought that worked well," Rogers said.

The play quickly proceeds to Gwendolyn, played by Baghdassarian, pushing Jack on his knees, and showing him how to propose to her. Gwendolyn’s mother, Lady Bracknell, played by Anthony Sidhom CM ’17 dressed in a white wig, long dress and ludicrous little tasseled hat, waltzes up the stage, proceeds to interview Jack, and then tells him that she refuses to allow him to marry her daughter. 

Algernon then adopts the name Earnest and pretends to be the wicked younger brother. Jack’s ward Cecily, played by Micaela Ferguson, informs him very seriously that in her imagination, she has been engaged with Earnest for months. The play then follows flustered Algernon and flustered Jack trying to officially change their name to Earnest, as both their new fiancés declare that they fell in love because of the name. The women dump the men and the men eat muffins in repentance.

Lady Bracknell descends on the scene, in her imposing high heels, finds out that Cecily has a rather large fortune, and makes her voice tender and appreciative. The play ends with Boyer, of the earnest face and earnest voice, declaring that for the first time he has “realized the importance of being earnest."

The actors did mention that it wasn’t an easy process.

“We’ve only had a week of practice, all being memorized," Baghdassarian said. “We were very crunched for time. But it came together. We’re happy with it.”