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Running Wilde at UMaine – ‘A Man of No Importance’

November 16, 2021
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Running Wilde at UMaine – ‘A Man of No Importance’ (photo courtesy UMaine School of Performing Arts)

ORONO - We can’t seem to forget about Oscar Wilde.

The Irish writer and iconoclast keeps resurfacing in the cultural consciousness. His plays remain among the most-produced at all levels of theater. His witticisms litter news editorials and greeting cards His stories are on college curricula and hipsters’ bookshelves everywhere. 

Wilde’s disregard for societal constructs made him enormously popular even during his lifetime. It also led to his eventual imprisonment for homosexuality. He died following his release. 

UMaine’s fall musical production, “A Man of No Importance,” directed by Cary Libkin, reminds audiences that Oscar Wilde has left us not just an artistic legacy, but a social one. The musical - with book by Terrance McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens - runs through November 19 in the Hauck Auditorium Theater. 

It’s 1964 Dublin, and Alfie Byrne (Jonathan Jue-Wong) is a bus conductor and an Oscar Wilde devotee. He performs his favorite lines from Wilde on his bus route, much to the delight of passengers and handsome driver Robbie Fay (Wyatt Sykes). Alfie lives with his sister, Lily (Maya Cunningham), who is frantic to get her adult brother married off so she can wed the local butcher, Mr. Carney (Travis Burt). 

Alfie wants his amateur theatre troupe to stage a production of Wilde’s play “Salome,” but there’s one problem - the troupe performs in the basement of St. Imelda’s Church and Father Kenney (Bernard Hope) is not amused by the prospect of a “dirty play.” Yet when a shy working girl named Adele (Kate Fogg) boards Afie’s bus one day, he can’t help but recruit her to play Princess Salome. 

The little troupe begins rehearsing with vigorous good cheer, despite increasing resistance from the conservative townspeople, led by Mr. Carney. Meanwhile, Alfie finds himself drawn in by Robbie’s charms and struggles with the implications of a “love that dare not speak its name.” But Alfie can’t keep up the facade forever …

It can be tricky to deal with this many layers of metatheatricality. “A Man of No Importance” is about a play within a play within yet another play, and when you’re trying to keep that many stories straight, things can get brittle pretty quickly. All the more impressive, then, that the UMaine cast pulls it off - and in true Wildean fashion, reveling in the ways that life imitates art. The frame narrative, in which Alfie’s troupe acts out the story of his life, is happily contrived; sure, you believe in the story, but you’re also reminded that you’re watching a bunch of actors having fun together.

And that’s where this production really shines: when the ensemble appears en masse, they blow things out of the water. Every actor is a skilled singer, and the group’s vocals blend beautifully. The harmonies are on-point. It’s rare to see a musical in which every ensemble member carries equal weight, and it’s a joy to witness here. The songs are accompanied by an onstage band, led by music director Phillip Burns. The musicians frame the edges of the stage and positively burn it up with the show’s Gaelic-inspired score.

The accent work in this production is miraculous - after just a few months of rehearsal, the cast members can all speak convincingly like Dubliners (I’m guessing here, because I’ve never been to Ireland, but you get what I mean.) And those crunchy Irish accents only add to the atmosphere created by Daniel Bilodeau’s set design. The stage transforms smoothly from a church basement, to a bus, to a grimy pub - this script demands a LOT of different locations, and Bilodeau delivers. There’s a mid-show surprise with the set that nearly sent me flying out of my chair, but I won’t ruin it for you. Jamie Grant’s lighting design is refreshingly straightforward - though with its own fair share of surprises - while Alexis Foster knocks it out of the park with period costumes. 

Jue-Wong shines as Alfie, swinging between optimism and existential despair; his lovely tenor injects every song with emotional power. Sykes as Robbie is quite a dish and fills up the stage with his exuberant energy and big, warm voice. Burt manages to code-switch between charmingly campy and deeply sinister, and plays well off Cunningham, who exudes the sort of big-sister bravado (think Lucy from “Peanuts”) that keeps audiences rooting for her. Fogg is the perfect blend of melancholy and hopeful, with a truly remarkable singing voice. Oh, and Bickford gives an unexpectedly touching (albeit tongue-in-cheek) performance in the number “Cuddles that Mary Gave,” which I promise is not as racy as it sounds. 

The rest of the ensemble - Samuel Aluia, Andrew Beaucage, Sabrina Fisher, Josh Flanagan, Megan Gerbi, Bernard Hope, Karissa Mierzejewski, Mark Muir, Isabelle Olson, and Olivia West - deserves individual mention, and I wish I could give it here. Suffice it to say that each actor brings their own flavor to the proceedings, and that every single one made me laugh at some point. 

“A Man of No Importance” is certainly a fun production. It’s got humor. It’s got dance sequences that can only be described as rollicking (choreographed by Stevie McGary). It’s got a paper-mâché head on a platter, for Pete’s sake. But it also tells a darker - and unfortunately still relevant - tale of what happens when the world rejects the love that a person has to give.

It is, in all, an important play.

(“A Man of No Importance” is running through Nov. 19. For tickets or more information, visit the UMaine School of Performing Arts website at www.umaine.edu/spa.)

Last modified on Tuesday, 16 November 2021 08:21
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