Thursday, September 21, 2023

"The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Guthrie Theater

My 20th season as a Guthrie Theater subscriber begins with a play that was part of my 7th season - the Oscar Wilde classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest. This is the fourth production in Guthrie history, the most recent being in 2009 (the year before I started this blog, so no record of my experience exists). Earnest is an absolute confection of a play, full of delicious language, ridiculous characters, and silly situations. This new production is absolutely delightful, from the three gorgeous sets, to the scrumptious costumes, to the fantastic performances by familiar faces and new. See it on the Wurtele Thrust Stage now through October 15.

The story begins in the London home of Algernon, where his friend Ernest confesses that his real name is Jack, and Ernest is the name of a brother he invented as an excuse to go to town. He wants to marry Algernon's cousin Gwendolen, but her mother Lady Bracknell isn't too keen on the idea considering Jack/Ernest's suspicious beginnings. We then move to Jack's country estate where Algernon impersonates Jack's fictitious brother Ernest in order to woo his ward Cecily. You can imagine the confusion when Gwendolen arrives to see her fiancé Ernest and finds the other lady also recently engaged to an Ernest. They soon straighten things out as the men confess their true identities, but there's still the matter of Lady Bracknell, and a surprising confession that changes everything.*

Jack and Algie (Corey Brill and Michael Doherty)
(photo by Dan Norman)
The program notes that they've changed the time period from 1895 to 1905 which, unless you're a scholar of English history, literature, or culture, is not noticeable. Director David Ivers returns to the Guthrie to helm this production after directing Blithe Spirit in 2018 and The Cocoanuts in 2015, and this show is just as funny and frothy and full of energy as those two were. The eight-person cast is such a joy to watch, so funny and playful and spot-on in their characterizations. A trio of Guthrie newcomers fill the top spots - Michael Doherty as a wonderfully ridiculous Algernon, with hilarious mannerisms and line readings; Corey Brill as the charming but flustered Jack; and Helen Cespedes as his love Gwendolen, a woman who knows what she wants (and doesn't want). They're joined by a trio of longtime Guthrie faves - Bob Davis in two very funny roles; Michelle O'Neill as Cecily's (mostly) prim and proper governess; and the great Sally Wingert, everything you could possibly want and more as Lady Bracknell. Rounding out the cast are two newer faces on the Guthrie stage (but familiar from other stages around town) - Adelin Phelps, delightful and a little bit scary as the determined Cecily; and Daniel Petzold, making the most of a small servant role.

Cecily and Gwendolen (Adelin Phelps and Helen Cespedes)
(photo by Dan Norman)
The play is in three acts, with two intermissions (tip: take a nap, have a coffee, or see a matinee), which are necessary to transition from the three very different locales. Act I takes place in a posh London flat with tall stately walls and period furniture, Act II moves to a country garden positively brimming with pink and yellow roses and other greenery, and the conclusion moves inside the country estate into a drawing room lined with bookshelves. It's amazing how they were able to create such distinct looks, aided by differences in lighting, on the same space within the same frame, and fascinating to watch the intermission transitions (scenic design by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, lighting design by Philip Rosenberg). 

Lady Bracknell with nephew Algernon (Sally Wingert
and Michael Doherty, photo by Dan Norman)
In my second row seat I had a close-up look at the gorgeous costumes (designed by Susan Tsu), which are as much a feast for the eyes as the tea-time treats are for Algie and Jack. The men are in tails, the women in luscious gowns of deep color in the city, and in off-white in the country, the younger women with lovely and delicate lace or crocheted overlays. Hats and shoes and charming little handbags complete the look, as do the elaborate and realistic looking wigs (there's nothing more distracting than bad wigs on stage, but you never have to worry about that at the Guthrie).

The Guthrie's 61st season is an exciting mix of classics (see also Shakespeare's history plays next spring) and new work (including the world premiere commission For the People, opening soon on the proscenium stage). And it's off to a roaring good start with this charming confection. 

*Plot summary borrowed from my review of Four Humors' 2017 production.