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Theatre Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

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*For full effect, one is advised to read this review in one’s most preposterously pompous British accent*

Who is Ernest, and why is it so important to be him? In Covenant’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, whoever bears the name of Ernest, intentionally spelled differently than in the play’s title, is promised a happily engaged ending, but the cast of characters will have some trouble before the true Ernest is discovered.

The lead characters are a pair of wealthy friends ready to settle down into matrimony at the play’s start: Algernon, carefree and always hungry, and Jack, who lives a double life and goes by “Ernest” while in town. These characters are portrayed by two of Covenant theater’s veteran actors, Jonathan Austin (‘18) and William Darby (‘18), respectively. At the beginning of the first act, Jack has decided to propose to Algernon’s cousin, the opinionated Gwendolyn, played by Ana Gresham (‘19) in one of her first major roles at Covenant. Before the end of the second act, Algernon has determined to marry Jack’s imaginative young ward Cecily, portrayed by Caroline Sawyer (‘20) in her Covenant theater debut. The confusion over just who is Ernest is further complicated over the course of the play by Will Payne (‘20) as an unforgettable Lady Bracknell; Matthias Overos (‘19) as the country vicar Dr. Chasuble; Emily Brauer (‘21) as the absent-minded governess Miss Prism; and Mark Davis (‘20) playing the two separate characters of the heavily beset upon butlers, Lane and Merriman.

Throughout the unlikely twists and turns of the story, the cast repeatedly encounters the question of what role truth plays in happiness. Are those who carelessly own up to the truth the happy ones? Or do those who artfully avoid inconvenient truths find happiness? Or perhaps the people who have the power to manipulate the truth to fit their wishes are those destined to have a happy ending.

Wilde's play is a classic for good reason; his dialogue is witty, bitingly satirical, and full of interlocking metaphors and running jokes. The script is versatile enough to be interpreted in several ways, but this production’s director, Professor Camille Hallstrom, has chosen to take the play in an over-the-top outrageous direction rather than a dry satirical one. This is perhaps most evident in the final act’s long-awaited revelation of Jack’s origins, where Darby discovers the preposterous truth about his name and birth with sincere belief, as opposed to an alternate interpretation of the play where Jack arranges the happy ending for himself.

As a result, the actors’ execution of their roles and lines is much larger than life, with their skipping, stomping, and lounging all impossible to miss. By the end of the play, the audience is quite familiar with each characters’ facial expressions of shock, surprise, displeasure, and amusement. Moreover, the cast adopted British accents for their roles. Sawyer’s delightfully exaggerated rolled r’s and Davis’s Jeeves-like mannerisms followed by a German accent add to the hilarity of the play excellently.

The character who best embodies the over-the-top spirit of the production is Payne as Lady Bracknell, a role traditionally played by male actors which makes it all the more hilarious. When Payne enters a scene as the dominating matriarch, he instantly commands the scene, all the more so because his hat and heels make him physically larger than the rest of the cast. His voice has the greatest range of depth and volume in the show, and viewers cannot help but enjoy Payne’s performance.

Lady Bracknell is enhanced all the more by Payne’s elaborate costume, complete with a corset, bustle, and massive hat, which, along with all the other costumes, were designed and crafted by Courtney McKenzie (‘18) as part of her Senior Integration Project. Color is an integral part of McKenzie’s work, with couples paired by the shade of their waistcoats or jackets and dresses: Algernon and Cecily in pink, Jack and Gwendolyn in purple, Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism in green, and Lady Bracknell standing alone in her dark navy dress with blue ribbons in her hat. McKenzie also indicated to the audience which is the stronger-willed partner in each couple by costuming these characters in deep hues. Gwendolyn, Algernon, and Dr. Chasuble wear darker, richer colors than their partners, and Lady Bracknell wears the darkest of all.

Amanda English (‘18) also worked on the show as part of her S.I.P., acting as Technical Director. In this role, English ensured each aspect of the production was completed in a timely manner and met the director’s standards. Although the piles of paperwork involved remain unseen by audiences, Earnest’s sets, lights, and sound all worked together seamlessly thanks to English’s guidance. Together with the set crew, who completely rearranged the stage during each of the show’s two intermissions, McKenzie and English’s work made the play a pleasure for the eyes as well as one’s sense of humor.

It is no wonder Covenant’s Theater Department chose Wilde’s most famous play to start off this spring’s theater program, as his droll script lends itself excellently to a cast as comedic as this one. By introducing some welcome new talent and allowing seniors’ talents to shine, this production of The Importance of Being Earnest is all-around “right as a trivet.”

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What's In Store for the Theatre Department?

This spring, the Covenant community can anticipate three performances by the Theatre Department: The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, which is already well underway in terms of production; Peter/Wendy by Jeremy Bloom, which will be directed by Abigail DeGraaf (‘18); and a new tradition unfolding at Covenant, which will invite any member of the student body to partake in a showcase of student talent, regardless of background or experience.

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