Popular play pokes fun at social traditions
By Ann McCreary
“A trivial comedy for serious people” is the subtitle of The Importance of Being Earnest, a play that mocks social traditions and is still relevant today, 120 years after it was first performed.
“The play pokes fun at how seriously we take our own little dramas,” said Ki Gottberg, who directs the production that opens Friday (July 24) at The Merc Playhouse in Twisp.
“All of us wear a variety of masks as a way of pretending to be someone that we think we’re supposed to be, as opposed to who we want to be,” Gottberg said.
Written by Oscar Wilde in 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest is a satire on Victorian manners, revealing the hypocrisy of society through fast-paced dialogue, word play and intellectual farce.
“This is the third time I’ve directed this play. I never grow tired of it and I’m still laughing at its language and goofiness,” said Gottberg, who is artistic director of The Merc and chair of Seattle University’s Department of Performing Arts and Arts Leadership.
“This play has been revived a billion times,” Gottberg said. It’s currently running in England and ran on Broadway four years ago, she said.
“The play is going to be done for time immemorial because it gets at the thing that’s uniquely human — our enjoyment of making fun of people and our enjoyment of getting away with murder,” Gottberg said.
The Victorian society that the play mocks had “an outer sense of protocol and ways of dressing — very straight-laced. But there was another side that was loud and crazy and sexy and breaking all the rules they could, especially the upper class who could break the rules because they were rich,” Gottberg said.
The plot focuses on Jack, a conventional Victorian gentleman, who has invented a fictional brother, Ernest, who is Jack’s bad-boy alter ego and flaunts traditional values. Things, of course, get complicated.
Ridiculous — and charming
“The plot is totally ridiculous. It’s quite charming. There’s a lot of delight in it,” Gottberg said.
“That’s one of the reasons I picked it. When we go to the theater we want to see something about ourselves, and completely different from ourselves,” she said.
She also liked the appeal of presenting a classic piece of theater that is also humorous as a summer production.
“The Merc is doing a mix of contemporary stuff. It’s nice to include a classic … and do a comedy in the summer in air-conditioned comfort.”
One of the challenges of the production has been helping actors learn to speak with British accents, Gottberg said. Seven of the eight actors in the production speak like upper-crust Brits.
“We brought in a vocal coach from Seattle, who has worked with the cast several times,” she said.
A professional costumer, Rose Pederson, is also participating in the production. Pederson, who has a family home in Chelan, works with the Seattle Repertory Theater, ACT Theater and Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle, Gottberg said.
Originally set in Victorian-era England, The Merc’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest is set in the 1920s. Gottberg said she chose to move the period in part because “the Victorian era is so much fussier in terms of clothing and corsets on women. The stuffy part of the Victorian era wasn’t as interesting to me. I was more interested in the word play.”
The play is in three acts and moves quickly, with rapid-fire dialogue, Gottberg said.
“The message, if there is a message, is to loosen up and enjoy the fun of language and the crazy situations we create,” Gottberg said.
The cast includes Jane Pappidas as Lady Bracknell, Mandi Smith as Gwendolyn, Gabrielle Sigrist as Algernon, Lizzie Aguirre as Cecily, Laurelle Walsh as Lane and Merriman (two roles), Chris Behrens as Jack, Christine Kendall as Miss Prism, and Don Nelson as Rev. Chasuble.
Sigrist and Aguirre appeared in the Seattle U. production of Picnic that was staged recently at The Merc.
Performances are July 24 through Aug. 9, with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $15 for adults and $5 for youths under 18. The July 30 performance is “pay what you can.” For information go to www.mercplayhouse.org or call 997-7529.