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Guthrie readies third take on Oscar Wilde’s ‘Importance of Being Earnest’

Last week I did a rehearsal lunch-break interview with the quartet of young actors who will be playing the courting couples when the Guthrie Theater opens its fall season with “The Importance of Being Earnest.” And I found myself asking some really dumb questions — or, at least, one really dumb question.

I should have known better. Years ago, when I was hawking some of the plays I had written prior to opening night by doing interviews, I’d mentally roll my eyes whenever the interviewer asked, “So, what’s your play about?”

I sometimes answered, “It’s about two hours, plus an intermission.” Then I’d grin at that lame joke before trying to come up with some coherent sentences about the worth of what I had been working on for so many months.

An honest answer would have been, “I’m not sure yet, but maybe I’ll know after I see how it goes.” Theater process is like that, a journey — sometimes a frantic journey — of discovery.

Previews to begin Saturday
Last week, my interview was with actors who had just completed two-plus weeks of rehearsal. John Skelley, who is playing Algernon Moncrieff, perhaps the most “Wilderesque” of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism-dropping characters, said the challenges of British dialects, blocking and line-meaning was behind them, but much remained. He was looking forward to the feedback from previews, which begin on Saturday. The production opens on Sept. 17.

Undaunted, I asked the actors to describe their takes on the characters they would be playing. Awkward silence ensued.

“I have maybe five different Gwendolens in me right now,” said Heidi Armbruster. She allowed that she had played Gwendolen Fairfax, one of two young women in love with a name (Ernest), in a production at Actors Theater of Louisville. But that was then and this is now.

Nick Mennell, who plays Jack Worthing, took a swing at the question. “I think the journey of Jack Worthing is really in the title of the play — his discovery of the importance of being Earnest,” Mennell said.

There were gales of laughter and I thought of sliding under the lunch table. But we got back on track and talked about the threads of honesty and flippancy that run through the play, about Victorian manners turned on their heads, and about the pleasure of what many consider to be one of the most perfect comedies ever written.

‘Mathematical’ precision in writing
“It’s musical, in a way,” said Erin Krakow, who is playing Cecily Cardew, the other woman in love with “Ernest.” She was referring to the almost rhythmic pace of the humor — which, when done right, can make an audience virtually laugh on cue. Skelley described the precision of Wilde’s writing as “mathematical.”

And they also talked about the element of familiarity. There are Wilde aficionados who, like Shakespeare buffs, can recite the best lines from memory.

“There’s the challenge of keeping it a living thing,” Mennell said. “In a play like this that’s so familiar, the audience can get ahead of the actors, and so it’s our job to keep them with us.”

This will be the Guthrie’s third swing at “Earnest.” Director Joe Dowling staged the play a decade ago in the old Guthrie venue, but the four actors said he makes little reference to that production during rehearsals. In 1984, the late Garland Wright also staged a version in the old theater on Vineland Place, one that I remember as sumptuously costumed.

Victorian eye-candy is predicted for this latest version as well. “The men in this production are gorgeous,” Krakow quipped, eliciting groans.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Nigel Raventhorpe on 09/12/2009 - 12:15 am.

    Bravo for David Hawley’s interview with the cast of this long awaited production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. He is right on target with his characterization of this work. It is a timeless comedy and from what I’ve heard of the featured young actors, this will be an event to be savored. (Eye candy, indeed!… have you seen the ladies!!). I’m quite sure that all who are fortunate enough to attend this performance will experience the sheer joy of being entertained by some of the country’s finest and most talented thespians. I simply cannot wait.

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