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Guthrie’s take on ‘Earnest’ Wilde-ly appropriate for today

Is “The Importance of Being Earnest” a comedy about hugely amusing Victorian characters or is it a comedy about Oscar Wilde’s observant wit?

It’s both of these things, of course. But it can be shaded in different ways, and the Guthrie Theater’s director, Joe Dowling, has clearly come down on the character side in the version that opened Thursday.

I didn’t see the production Dowling staged at the old Guthrie about a decade ago. But I remember the Guthrie version put up by the late Garland Wright in the 1980s, where the actors seemed to frame each of Wilde’s famous aphorisms with quotation marks. There wasn’t anything particularly new about Wright’s approach – and, in fact, you can go here to see another example of it from a 1985 TV version that starred Dame Wendy Hiller as the formidable Lady Bracknell.

On reflection, I think there’s much to be said for the approach taken by the current Guthrie cast. They’re inhabiting characters and they’ve taken Wilde’s witticisms and made them part of what passes for conversation in their rarified world. So when Lady Bracknell, portrayed with sputtering sharpness by Linda Thorson, utters the famous retort, “A handbag?” (Wilde enthusiasts love to discuss how this line has been delivered by famous actresses), she simply says the line as her character would say it.

The Wilde quotations that litter the play still get laughs, but the audience doesn’t get all the cues. The tradeoff is the chance to see characters who are more than ciphers. And the pace of the performance — by wordy Victorian standards, at least — is brisk.

The blithe shenanigans of two courting couples fill the production with surprises. The tall, reed-thin Nick Mennell has an exasperated edge as Jack Worthing, the character who eventual concludes that it’s important to be earnest. But you also detect the shades of a prig about him. John Skelley, who is Wilde’s alter ego as Algernon Moncrieff, manages to carry an insouciant attitude through the second half of the play, where he changes from a feckless observer to a love-struck participant. Through it all, he’s playing games in a candy store.

And there are the contrasts between the “girls.” Heidi Armbruster plays Gwendolen as a woman carrying several layers of façade, her smile seemingly pasted on and her gestures carefully mannered. She gets one of the biggest laughs of the night when she lets the frame slip a bit while describing her erotic attraction – “vibrations!!!” — to the name “Ernest.”

By contrast, Erin Krakow is a perky adolescent as Cecily, a woman masking indomitable will beneath studied innocence. Costume designer Mathew J. LeFebvre helps the contrast: Krakow, her face framed by curls, wears a dress that outlines a figure as sexy as a Victorian can get, while Armbruster, all poofy and blocky, is a Victorian throwback to Queen Elizabeth I as virgin queen.

Linda Thorson’s version of Lady Bracknell may be one of the most unusual acting elements of this production. Most of the Bracknells I’ve seen have been haughty and aloof. Thorson is incisive and razor-voiced, and she delivers her utterances with a rapid, Shakespearean pace. She has just one scene in each act (the plays second and third acts are combined), but when she’s on, she takes over.

The supporting players all have the chance to be memorable. Suzanne Warmanen as Cecily’s tutor, Miss Prism, and Richard S. Iglewski as the country clerk, Chasuble, practically salivate over each other, and Kris L. Nelson gets the chance to play two different manservants, each of them in an astonishingly funny transformation.

The set by Walt Spangler places each scene on a white deck with a piece of house architecture in the center and the world fading into the distance behind. The garden scene in the second act has an astonishing element, however. Giant flowers, looking like a collage of identical Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, cover the stage and hang from above. Are we dealing with surreal Freudian eroticism here? Who knows, but it works for me.

“The Importance of Being Earnest runs through Nov. 8. For information, go here.

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