This week, the UA Department of Theatre and Dance put on Oscar Wilde’s comedic play “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Set in the late-Victorian era, hilarity and chaos ensue when two men pretend to be a man named Ernest Worthing so they can romance two unsuspecting women.
The first thing an audience member might notice when they walk into the Marian Gallaway Theatre for “The Importance of Being Earnest” is the giant gramophone that looms on the stage above the audience. Its wooden base is large enough for the actors to dance inside while four footmen rotate the entire structure.
The huge, twirling victrola was dreamed up by director Seth Panitch and guest scenic designer David Harwell as the perfect backdrop for Oscar Wilde’s comedic play about love, alter egos and tragic misinformation.
Mallory Wintz, a first-year MFA theatre candidate with a concentration in acting, said she’s most excited for the audience to see the victrola. In the play, Wintz plays Gwendolyn Fairfax, a lady of high society who strives to marry Ernest Worthing, the fake alter ego of Jack Worthing.
“I got to sit in the audience for the first time last night and just watch the bits I wasn’t on stage for and it’s beautiful watching the lights and everything,” Wintz said. “I never got to see it from that far away, and it’s just a great process for every aspect of theatre, like set, costume, actors. Everybody got to stretch themselves in it.”
The play, which was written in the late 19th century, was kept in its original time period for the University’s production. The costumes created by Jennifer Raineri included bustling skirts, puffy sleeves, tailcoats and more in a myriad of colors. The actors also spoke in old-fashioned British accents, and their posture was always impeccably upright.
Nathaniel Reid, the department’s marketing manager and a third-year MFA theatre candidate with a concentration in arts management and MBA candidate with a concentration in strategic management and marketing, said shows like “The Importance of Being Earnest” are important for everyone in the theatre department.
“A show like this is a fun period piece that allows for a well-rounded curriculum for all of our MFAs when they leave,” Reid said. “This type of show is a really big win for making sure that everybody has experience with this particular type of thing which will be produced very commonly out on what we call the circuit.”
Grace Arnold, a senior majoring in dance and theatre with a concentration in musical theatre, plays the 18-year-old Cecily Cardew, who charms her way into becoming engaged to Algernon Moncrieff, who is also pretending to be Ernest Worthing.
Both Wintz and Arnold emphasized that just because the play was written well over 100 years ago, it doesn’t mean that it won’t captivate today’s audience just as it did before.
“Even though we portray this upper-middle class and they come from a different era and a different time period, you can still relate to every character on stage and watch these people being ridiculous and relate to how they all interact with love at first sight and how everyone becomes a girl-ish teenager again when they fall in love for the first time,” Arnold said.
Perhaps surprisingly, the comedy of the play still shines through even today. The dramatic irony paired with humorous quarks and rebuttals and the over-exaggeration of movements makes the show incredibly enjoyable and easy to watch.
“When you go into the script, there are just some funny lines itself,” Wintz said. “And of course Seth has added his own physical bits that Oscar Wilde himself didn’t write but he has kind of thrown in and made it funnier for modern-day audiences because a lot of physical comedy hits more for us. But Wilde himself, I still laugh at some of his jokes that he wrote years ago. It was surprisingly funny.”
For example, in the scene where the two ladies realize that they’re both engaged to Ernest Worthing, Fairfax’s teacup and saucer clatter together because her hands are shaking with anger.
“They say that comedies don’t age well, but this one really does,” Arnold said. “We’ve changed barely any lines, and it still just as funny today as it was back then – maybe more funny.”
The ending scene, which found all three couples dancing inside of the rotating victrola, was reminiscent of a scene in a music box. Arnold said this is her favorite scene.
“That’s my favorite part just because you can be in every element of the show at once,” Arnold said. “And I’m really excited for the audience to see that because it’s like at the very end, but it’s just so beautiful and like everything comes together and we’re all dancing up there together while it’s rotating, the lights are on us. We still tear up, and we’ve been watching it for months now.”