It’s been 60 years since celebrated English theater director Sir Tyrone Guthrie opened the Minneapolis theater that now bears his name. And it’s worth remembering that one of his central missions was to create new productions of “the classics.”
The Guthrie’s season-opening take on Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” provides a welcome reminder that “the classics” don’t have to be suffered through like a necessary medicine, good only for your intellectual edification but not particularly flavorful. Director David Ivers’ vibrant staging strikes an ideal balance between silliness and thoughtful social satire, taking what can be an overly wordy play and lending it a delightful physicality, augmented by a consistently eye-catching design scheme.
Among the keys to its success is Ivers’ emphasis upon the eccentricities of each of its nine characters. Almost every actor has crafted a memorable creation in this outrageous comedy of manners, taking Wilde’s words in all sorts of inventive and unexpected directions. Even if the absurd plot has you rolling your eyes, these silly people still seem quite real in their quests for love and a life of ease, even if that means spinning a tall tale or two.
To simplify Wilde’s winding, twist-filled storyline, two 20-something English friends, Jack and Algernon, discover they’ve a few unusual things in common: They’ve each invented a relative or friend whom they use as an escape hatch to get out of undesirable social commitments, with the alias of “Earnest” being key in both of their double lives. Soon, they’ve fallen for two quirky women who are each obsessed with the idea of marrying a man by that name. Throw in an acid-tongued matriarch and a baby left in a handbag at a railway station, and things get pretty wild … and distinctly Wilde.
No playwright has been more committed to demonstrating his cleverness at every opportunity, with one witticism after another flowing from Wilde’s pen. In Ivers’ interpretation, Algernon acts very much as the author’s stand-in, whimsically philosophizing about human nature and interpersonal relations while playfully gallivanting about the stage. And Michael Doherty seizes the opportunity to steal scenes as this barbed-witted man-child, making Algernon a foppish foil to Corey Brill’s more controlled but nevertheless engaging Jack.
But this is a production in which the women almost succeed in snatching the show away from these duplicitous protagonists. Helen Cespedes’ charming Gwendolen proves a fine match for Jack while pushing against the restraints of social convention. Yet the production’s most memorable performance comes from Adelin Phelps as an endearingly silly Cecily. It’s easy to see why Algernon is so taken with her upon first meeting, for Phelps makes her quite the charismatic goofball.
Oh, about Algernon being the author’s stand-in: One could argue that his more catty and cutting side comes out through Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s social-strata-obsessed mother. Sally Wingert brings all the droll disapproval one could wish from the role. And Bob Davis successfully hops on the eccentricity bandwagon as a lovestruck village pastor.
Each cast member is served well by the colorful costuming of Susan Tsu and the stately set of Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams. They help give a classic look to a production that honors Wilde’s wit, yet manages to make his play even funnier.
‘The Importance of Being Earnest’
When: Through Oct. 15
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 Second St. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $82-$29, available at 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org
Capsule: You’ll seldom have more fun experiencing a “classic.”
Rob Hubbard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.