For an intimate, unadulterated theatrical experience, the Shoe Box Theater is one of the best spaces in town. With the players hardly more than a long arm's reach from the audience, this isn't the place to go for majestic sets or astounding special effects. Rather, it's a space for absolute actor engagement and—as late director Garland Wright put it—"the shared act of imagining between actor and audience."
Which makes it the perfect setting for Northwest Classical Theatre Company (NWCTC) to present Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, a tale of upper-class vanity and ridiculous social constructs. Directed by John Monteverde, Earnest is another pared-down production by the Portland company dedicated to staging "no-concept" classic and classical works.
NWCTC make a strong effort, but are ultimately bedeviled by the details. A somewhat obvious (and conceptual) design choice places mirrors along the upstage wall, drubbing the audience with the theme of vanity—and giving the actors a set piece to interact with that completely removes them from engagement onstage. Further, the British accents are inconsistent at best and flatten even the best-intentioned performances.
Rough-around-the-edges costumes and broken-down or anachronistic props further detract from the audience's ability to go along for the ride. A girl scribbles in a purportedly well-loved diary that has mostly empty pages. A rich woman's parasol is in tatters. This theater space is far too intimate to ignore torn, ill-fitting costumes and poorly thought-out props.
Though the production is consistent if unremarkable, it does shine brightly on occasion. A climactic argument over muffins in act two will likely turn out to be one of the best-executed comic scenes on the Portland stage this year. Much of the casting is strong: As Lady Bracknell, Paige Jones thoroughly owns her character, and Sara Simon is sharp and refreshing as Cecily Cardew. Bright spots like these make the rough ones in NWCTC's productions worth it. This is a company that loves what they do, and loves sharing their work with appreciative audiences—and that dedication shows. As the company's success grows, however, so should their attention to the smaller details.