By Melissa Fitzgerald, news correspondent
The Northeastern’s Department of Theatre is bringing Oscar Wilde to the stage with its rendition of “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
Wilde’s play centers around two friends, both of whom have aliases and separate lives in another part of the country, and the complications that their lack of earnestness brings to their lives.
“[The show] says some fascinating things about secrets and identity, public and private selves and truth and lies,” Scott Edmiston, director of the play and theatre professor, said.
The first act introduces the play’s protagonist, Jack Worthington, a responsible man in charge of a young, pretty ward, Cecily, in his house in the country. However, when he goes to the city, he pretends to be his fictional wild and rather scandalous younger brother, Ernest. Once in the city, Ernest and his friend Algernon Moncrieff await the arrival of Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen with whom Jack happens to fall madly in love.
“What I like about the character Jack is he’s very romantic, but very bad at being romantic,” Grant Terzakis, the junior theatre major playing Jack, said. “He’s not as smooth as Algernon, but he wants to be in love so much and he loves this girl Gwendolen and he would do anything … but he’s awkward. He doesn’t know what to say at the right moments.”
Worthington’s excitement over seeing Gwendolen reminds the audience that not everything has to be serious.
Both Worthington and Moncrieff end up proposing to women under the guise of the name Ernest, a play on words that serves to reinforce and call into question the importance of being Ernest in name and earnest in character.
“It’s witty and stylish on the surface, but if you look deeper, it’s actually a rather subversive play about the superficiality of society,” Edmiston said.
The comedy in this show is a departure from the dramas and dark comedies that the theatre department has put on in the past, including “columbinus” in February and “The Last Five Years” in November. By comparison, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is done in a slapstick style.
“We’ve been learning how to do comedy,” Terzakis said. “Especially in this show, the more serious you are and the more intense you are, the more funny it is … so you have to say your line, no matter how absurd it is, with a straight face like you were born to say this line.”
In addition to getting used to the comedic style, the cast needed to adjust to the complex language and dialects in the play.
“[It was] so, so, so hard,” Megan Maloney, a junior communication studies and theatre double major who plays Lady Bracknell, said. “We only had a month to put this thing together … I thought around this time, we’d be thinking, ‘Oh no, we don’t have enough time,’ but for the past week, we’ve been itching to get to [tech rehearsal].”
“The Importance of Being Earnest” has inspired several movie renditions, including one in 1952 and another in 2002 starring Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon.
“‘Earnest’ was written for the stage and meant to be seen live,” Edmiston said. “I didn’t think the recent movie was very good, and while it’s a pleasure to read, it’s much, much funnier to watch. We want the audience to see the play as fresh and surprising and relevant.”
This can be seen in the set’s modern feel. It is dominated by black and white, but some color appears in the second act with large, billowing curtains, a large flower print on the floor and flower-printed backdrops.
“We did not want the play to seem like a museum production from 1895,” Edmiston said. “Jen Babcock took a stylish, non-literal approach to the set design. Wilde is all about artifice, and her design is theatrical, not realistic. She was drawn to flowers and a gazebo as the foundational images.”
However, the costumes, including hand-made corsets and dresses, align with the Victorian era.
Francis McSherry, who designs professionally around Boston, along with the Department of Theatre costume team, made every woman’s dress by hand.
“The story and the characters and the look of the production are being reinterpreted by a group of young theatre artists bringing their own sensibility and ideas and humor to the play,” Edmiston said. “I think Oscar Wilde would have loved that.”
The play, which includes a discussion differentiating fools and clever people in one scene and a heated argument about how many muffins each person is eating in another, parallels the recognizable and relatable (if not less exaggerated) mix of the trivial and the serious in real life.
“I think besides laughs, the main thing I’d like the audience to walk away with is to not take yourself so seriously … because when you do, everything becomes trivial and vice versa,” Maloney said. “I think that’s a huge theme in the show. Especially on a college campus, it’s good to teach people to relax and show them not everything has to have so much weight to it.”
“The Importance of Being Earnest” will play at the Studio Theatre in the Curry Student Center from March 31 to April 12. The tickets are $8 for undergraduate students and $15 for non-students.
Photo courtesy Christopher McKenzie