Oscar Wilde's wit meets test of time

November 12, 1995|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

"The Importance of Being Earnest" was first produced 100 years ago. But the professional stage company in residence at Howard Community College is certain that Oscar Wilde's satire of pomposity, arbitrary social mores and empty values remains as contemporary and entertaining as it was then.

The two-hour comedy will be presented at 3 p.m. today and Nov. 19, and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Smith Theatre in Howard Community College by the Rep Stage Company.

"Oscar Wilde was very much before his time," said Valerie Costantini, the company's artistic director and producer. "Many of the issues he dealt with are still being dealt with today -- marriage, love, relationships. A great piece of work is universal and will speak to any age."

Considered by critics to be one of the wittiest plays in the English language, it makes fun of 19th-century British aristocrats.

"But it was the aristocrats that flocked to the play," said director Vincent Lancisi.

Wilde, who was born in Ireland in 1856, also wrote the novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and the plays "A Woman of No Importance" and "An Ideal Husband."

Married with children, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison for homosexuality shortly after "The Importance of Being Earnest" opened in London in 1895. He died of an ear infection, bankrupt and disgraced, in Paris in 1900.

"The play takes on a second layer given Wilde's background," said John Lescault, who plays Algernon, a rich playboy. "So much in the play is about double lives. As we learn more about his life, we see it reflected in the play."

The complex farce revolves around two upper-class British friends who have fashioned secret identities for themselves.

Algernon is Wilde's alter ego. Suave and irreverent, he pokes fun at just about everything with his paradoxes and witticisms. He invents a sick friend he "visits" to avoid responsibility and pursue adventure.

Jack is conventional and serious. But he, too, has developed an alias -- a fictitious wayward brother named "Earnest" -- that he uses whenever he ventures out of his country home to visit his sophisticated but silly girlfriend Gwendolyn, who is Algernon's cousin.

Gwendolyn's fearsome mother, Lady Bracknell, dismisses Jack when he reveals that he was abandoned as an infant and can't prove his pedigree. She also disapproves of Jack's guardianship of 18-year-old Cecily, who lives at his country home.

Algernon wants to meet the beautiful Cecily, so he poses as "Earnest" while Jack is traveling. The plot thickens when Jack tries to end his duplicity and both women declare that the men they marry must bear the name "Earnest," a moniker that inspires trust.

Throughout the story, characters pontificate about society's rules and obsess over everything from how to hold one's chin and whether taking sugar in tea is still fashionable to how to react in a crisis.

Or, as Gwendolyn says, "In matters of grave importance, style -- not sincerity -- is a vital thing."

"It's one of the most difficult plays I ever directed," said Mr. Lancisi, founder of Everyman Theatre in Balitmore. "It reads like a delightful comedy, light-hearted, witty. But it has a very complicated plot."

The colorful set rotates in view of the audience, revealing a Victorian parlor on one side and a patio in the countryside on the other.

To make this century-old play fresh, Mr. Lancisi moved the setting from London to British Colonial India.

"I wanted to show the absurdity of the aristocracy by creating a setting in great contrast to their lives," he said.

"The British were in a country which had its own culture and history, but refused to mingle. They wore the latest fashions of England -- heavy velvet -- in this tropical climate. They ate English food, and the art had to be British."

The lively production features strong ensemble acting by Kyle Prue as Jack; Cathleen Kae as Cecily; Jackie Underwood as Gwendolyn; Rosemary Knower as Lady Bracknell; Jean Comstock as Miss Prism; and J.M. McDonough as Rev. Chausible. All deliver their lines in rapid-fire British dialect.

"It seems the dialogue effortlessly flows off the tongue," Mr. Lancisi said. "But every phrase has to be perfectly coined and delivered with the right tone.

"In so many lines there are several jokes. If the actors barrel through them, we're afraid we'll lose the humor."

The Rep Stage Company will present "The Importance of Being Earnest" at 3 p.m. today and Nov. 19 and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at HCC's Smith Theatre. Tickets are $16 for orchestra seating and $13 for mezzanine. Sunday matinee is $10. Discounts available. Information: 964-4900.

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