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'Being Earnest' still important after all these years

| Friday, Aug. 5, 2011

Thinking you can improve on "The Importance of Being Earnest" requires a bit of bravado.

Written in 1895 at the height of Oscar Wilde's popularity, his witty, articulate comedy of manners and social satire has retained its popularity and humor for more than a century.

Its subversive tale of mistaken identities, social hypocrisy, thwarted romances and witty banter, subtitled "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People," revolves around two young London sophisticates, Algernon and Jack, and the young women they hope to court — Gwendolyn and Cecily.

A mere 110 years after its London debut, Irish writer and director Conall Morrison decided to put his own spin on Wilde's work.

A former associate artist of Dublin's Abbey Theatre, Morrison created a prologue for the play and filled all the parts — male and female — with male actors.

Morrison's adaptation, which Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre begins performing Thursday, opens with Wilde — disgraced, exiled, impoverished and overlooked — beginning his breakfast with a glass of absinthe in The Brasserie Dauphine in Paris.

As he remembers past glories, "The Importance of Being Earnest" comes to life in Wilde's imagination, filling its roles both male and female with the beautiful waiters and elegant male customers who frequent the brasserie.

Wilde inserts himself into the world of the play and the plum role as the social matriarch Lady Bracknell, as well as the smaller part of Algernon's butler, Lane.

The production exist, Morrison says: "in a bubble bath of Oscar's imagination and his many world views. By putting them in Oscar's mind, it accentuates (the action), makes it funnier and enhances the level of comedy. ... You get an added sense of the Art Nouveau life and costumes, the added elegance. ... It's an idealized version of ... 'Earnest' in a satirical way."

The idea for the adaptation was born from Morrison's belief that Wilde's plays come alive when you feel WIlde's presence and voice. "The play is utterly suffused with the personality of Oscar Wilde," he says.

He chose to cast his play with men dressed as women in lavish period costumes to emphasize a point that Wilde was making with his play.

"It's a commentary and a send up (of the idea) that we are all performers ... enacting designated roles and performing identities," says Morrison.

But that doesn't diminish the play's wit and comedy, Morrison promises.

"What you never lose are the manifestations of (Wilde's) writing and comedic genius. You get to savor it more and get to celebrate him more."

Heading the cast as Wilde, Lady Bracknell and Algernon's butler is Alan Stanford, who played those roles in Morrison's 2005 and 2006 productions at the Abbey Theatre.

Pittsburgh audiences are familiar with Stanford for his most recent work here as a director last season's productions of "Betrayal" and "Celebration."

Stanford in is exceptionally well-versed in Wilde and his work, says Morrison.

In addition to his adaptation and direction of Wilde's "Salome" for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical in 2008, he also performed his one-man show "In the Presence of Oscar Wilde."

That knowledge works to his advantage in his role as Wilde, Morrison says: "I'm not saying he is Oscar Wilde incarnate. But he's not far off. He gets a great buzz off of the American actors' energy and knows the infinite riches in the lines."

Additional Information:

'The Importance of Being Earnest'

Produced by: Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre

When: Thursday through Aug. 27. Performances: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 7 p.m. Tuesday and Aug. 23

Admission: $20-$50

Where: Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland

Details: 412-394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org

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