Comedy Rules Northern Stage's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, Now thru 2/24
Few plays have stood the test of time in the way that The Importance of Being Earnest has. Written in 1895, this "Serious Comedy for Trivial People," as playwright Oscar Wilde termed it, offers situations and comedy that remain timeless and fresh. The characters are memorable, from the careless and self-centered Jack to the innocent and impressionable Cecily. Wilde skewers Victorian society in a manner that leaves audiences laughing from start to finish.
The Importance of Being Earnest, written by Oscar Wilde and directed by Carol Dunne, runs live on stage at Northern Stage at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, VT, from tonight, February 6 - 24, 2013. For tickets and information, call 802-296-7000 or visit www.northernstage.org.
Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5:00 p.m., except for the Opening Night performance on Friday, Feb. 8 at 7:00 p.m., with a 2:00 p.m. matinee on Thursday, Feb. 14.
The show stars Catherine Doherty as Lady Bracknell, the comically haughty and self-righteous arbiter of good manners. Doherty has entertained and fascinated local audiences in such iconic roles as the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, as well as portraying multiple parts in Parallel Lives and The Search for Intelligent Life in the UniversE. Northern Stage newcomers Brough Hansen and Matthew Cohn, both Dartmouth graduates, portray the wastrel Jack Worthing and his sensible friend Algernon Moncrieff, romancing the eminently practical Gwendolen Fairfax (Alexis Hyatt) and the stars-in-her-eyes Cecily Cardew (Talene Monahon).
The Importance of Being Earnest-which Oscar Wilde subtitled "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People"-stands as one of the most clever and quotable plays ever written. It was also the last play ever by a remarkable and controversial writer who died at the age of 46.
Following the success of his stage plays Lady Windermere's Fan and A Woman of No Importance, Wilde was asked to write another; Wilde insisted that he was asked to write a play "with no real serious interest." The play, written quickly over the course of a month but revised meticulously over the coming months, was reduced by Wilde from four acts to three, largely by eliminating the character of Mr. Gribsby, a London solicitor who arrives to arrest "Ernest" for unpaid restaurant bills. Wilde used several names from his own life; for example, Lady Queensbury, the mother of Wilde's lover Lord AlFred Douglas, lived at Bracknell, and Wilde wrote the play at his summer home at Worthing.
The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed on February 14, 1895 at the St. James' Theatre in London, even though his previous play, An Ideal Husband, was still playing to packed houses at the Haymarket Theatre a few streets away. A plan by the Marquess of Queensbury to disrupt the show with rotten vegetables was foiled when Wilde instructed the theater owner not to let him in. After that first performance, Wilde said to George Alexander (who played Jack in addition to managing the theater), "Charming, quite charming. And, do you know, from time to time it reminded me of a play I once wrote called The Importance of Being Earnest."
Unfortunately, on April 5, Wilde was arrested on a charge of "gross indecency" because of his affair with Lord AlFred Douglas. Wilde's name was removed from the program, and the production shut down on May 8 after only 83 performances. Ironically, the next production at the theater was The Triumph of the Philistines.
The play premiered on Broadway at the Empire Theatre in 1895, but that production closed after only 12 performances. It popped up in Australia in 1896, but soon Wilde's arrest and disgrace rendered his work impossible to produce. The play briefly returned to Broadway in 1902, 1910, 1921, with a slightly longer run in 1926 (about 70 performances) and 1939 (61 performances). Sir John Gielgud directed and portrayed Jack in the 1947 production, with Margaret Rutherford (best known as Miss Marple in the early 1960s Agatha Christie films) as Lady Bracknell and Stringer Davis-later Rutherford's husband-as Merriman. Rutherford later played Miss Prism in the 1952 film. Following a brief revival in 1997, the best-known Broadway production, in 2011, which transferred from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, earned Tony nominations for Best Revival, among others. The six-month run included Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell, one of several times that the venerable lady was played by a man. A 1992 film featured an all-black cast and was set in the U.S.; the 2002 film includes Colin Firth as Jack, Rupert Everett as Algernon, Judi Dench as Bracknell, Reese Witherspoon as Cecily and Frances O'Connor as Gwendolen and restores the Gribsby subplot.
Director Carol Dunne notes that The Importance of Being Earnest represents the excess and emphasis on style over substance characteristic of the aesthetic movement. Each of the characters represents a self-centered path, from Algernon's voracious appetite for life (and cucumber sandwiches) to Lady Bracknell's self-righteousness and the Rev. Chasuble's ill-disguised lust for Miss Prism.
The cast features a mix of Northern Stage veterans and newcomers. In addition to Catherine Doherty, returning actors include Alexis Hyatt as Gwendolen Fairfax, who previously appeared here in Amadeus, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and M. Butterfly. Other returnees include Shu-nan Chu (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Romeo and Juliet, Born Yesterday, Peter Pan), Kasey Brown and John Reshetar (from Born Yesterday), and M. Carl Kaufman (making his record-breaking 13th appearance). New to Northern Stage are Brough Hansen and Matthew Cohn as Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, respectively; both are Dartmouth College graduates and professional actors with credits at theaters such as Manhattan Repertory Theatre, National Black Theatre of Harlem, Elm Shakespeare Company, Trinity Rep and Commonwealth Shakespeare. Local audiences may remember Hansen from appearances in Dartmouth productions such as The Imaginary Invalid and The Underpants; Cohn has performed at the New London Barn Playhouse in plays such as Picasso at the Lapin Agile, I Hate Hamlet and Almost, Maine. Rounding out the cast is Dartmouth senior Talene Monahon, who has appeared in Dartmouth productions of Hairspray and The Rocky Horror Show.
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born October 16, 1854, his mother's second child and his father's fifth (as he had fathered-and duly supported--three children before his marriage). His father was a noted physician and ear and eye surgeon and champion of free medical care for the poor who was later knighted for his pioneering collection of medical statistics. His mother was a gifted linguist and Irish nationalist who also wrote revolutionary poems under the pseudonym "Speranza." Oscar studied at the Portora Royal School, where he took prizes in the classics and drawing and ultimately won a scholarship to Trinity College in Dublin. He placed first in examinations there and picked up a scholarship to Magdalen College at Oxford, where he continued to excel, winning the Newdigate Prize for his poem "Ravenna".
Following publication of a book of poems, Wilde toured the United States, lecturing on aesthetics, a growing movement that insisted that art-whether it is literature, painting or architecture-should be appreciated purely for its inherent beauty and not for any moral or ideological component. The four-month tour was extended to over a year because of its popularity. His first two plays-Vera and The Duchess of Padua-were forgettable (and largely forgotten) melodramas. In 1884 he married Constance Lloyd; they had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. Meanwhile, he had established a reputation as a critic and journalist and was named editor of The Lady's World, a magazine that he renamed The Woman's World. Despite the improvements he made to the publication, sales (and Wilde's interest) flagged; by 1890, and the publication of short fiction, including The Picture of Dorian Gray (later expanded into book form), he was gone.
His best-known stage works followed, beginning with Salomé (written in French, banned in England for its biblical references, and not staged until 1896 in Paris), followed by the comedy Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1894) and his final play, The Importance of Being Earnest. Meanwhile, he had established an affair with Lord AlFred Douglas, the son of the Marquess of Queensbury, and was introduced to a variety of male prostitutes; Queensbury was none too pleased and accused Wilde of sodomy. Wilde insisted on prosecution of the Marquess by Wilde for defamation, but according to the laws of the day, Queensbury's allegation was true, and the suit was dropped. The ordeal led to the ultimate arrest of Wilde for "gross indecency with males" for his homosexual behavior. In 1895, Wilde was sentenced to the maximum, two years of hard labor, a sentence the judge pronounced as "totally inadequate for a case such as this." His playwriting career was over, and none of his plays were staged again until after his death. His wife moved to Italy and changed her name; Wilde was not allowed to see his sons.
During this time he wrote his piece De Profundis, a 50,000-word letter intended for Douglas that discussed his spiritual journey throughout his trial. When he was released, Wilde moved to France and never returned to Ireland or the United Kingdom. He wrote his last work in 1898, The Ballad or Reading Gaol, a long poem commemorating his time spent in prison. He died in 1900 of cerebral meningitis.
Carol Dunne, Senior Lecturer of Theater at Dartmouth College and Producing Artistic Director of the New London Barn Playhouse, makes her debut as a director at Northern Stage, after appearing her on stage in Private Lives, Lend Me a Tenor, Dancing at Lughnasa, Cats and Midlife, the Crisis Musical! Dunne has led the Barn to a new era of artistic success and financial stability as a not-for-profit Equity theater dedicated to training emerging artists. At the Barn, Carol has directed Hair (Owl Award, Best Edgy Theater) A Funny Thing...Forum, The Pirates of Penzance (9 NH Theater Awards), The Producers, I Hate Hamlet and A Grand Night for Singing. At Dartmouth College, she has won a Distinguished Lecturer Award and directed Angels in America, Hairspray, The Rocky Horror Show and Hair and Eurydice and served as Musical Director and Choreographer of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Acting at New London Barn includes The Man Who Came to Dinner and Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Carol acted and directed at the Cleveland Play House for 10 years and served as Interim Director of Musical Theater at Baldwin-Wallace College. Princeton University (Page Theater Prize), MFA: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She resides in Etna, NH with husband Peter Hackett and children Ellie and Jamie.
Northern Stage now stands as one of the most prestigious and fastest-growing regional theaters in New England. Northern Stage has offered over 100 productions, including World Premieres such as The Shrew Tamer, Ovid: Tales of Myth & Magic and A Christmas Carol: The Musical. Other highlights include a staged reading of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Patrick Stewart and Lisa Harrow and a reading of Resurrection Blues, with the playwright, Pulitzer Prize winner Arthur Miller, in attendance. The company has been honored with Moss Hart Awards for Excellence in Theater from the New England Theatre Conference five times, for productions of To Kill A Mockingbird (1999), All My Sons (2004), LES MISERABLES (2008), Hamlet (2009) and Amadeus (2010), as well as an Addison Award for The Shrew Tamer (2004) and 2010 Owl Awards for Best Actress and Best Musical and 2011 awards for Best Comedy Theater and Best Artistic Director.
Community support has enabled the company to sell over 30,000 tickets in downtown White River Junction in the last year to enjoy entertaining and thought-provoking professional theater and theater education here at the crossroads of northern New England. They have also reached out to offer residencies and workshops at over a dozen area schools; initiated "Project Playwright," a literacy program for fifth and sixth graders; and conducted a statewide literacy program, The Big Read, under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts.