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Villanova Theatre is excited to bring Oscar Wilde’s most enduringly popular play, The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Theatre Department Chairperson Dr. Valerie Joyce.
In Victorian London a pair of wily bachelors masquerade as respectable gentlemen to court the attentions of two well-dowried ladies. Gallant Jack and irreverent Algernon invent “Ernest” alter-egos to win the hearts of Cecily and Gwendolen, each of whom conveniently claims she’ll only marry a man by that name. When all four arrive at Jack’s country home on the same weekend, the men struggle to keep up with their stories as their plans go hilariously awry. With its witty wordplay, caustic commentary and blistering banter, Earnest is a riotously funny farce for the ages.
Director Valerie Joyce will bring Wilde’s tea-and-crumpet-infused comedy to life with an approach that brings out his complex social commentary. A witty satire of the Victorian Era, Earnest skewers the façade of propriety, hypocritical habits, and the social and sexual mores of his time.
Dr. Joyce has encouraged her actors to look beneath the “shallow mask of manners” each character has created in order to uncover the truth behind his or her own secrets, lies, and double lives. A double alumna of Villanova herself, she has been directing, designing, or performing on stage at Villanova Theatre for more than 20 years. Previous projects she has directed on campus include Last Seen: Voices of Slaveries Lost Families, Intimate Apparel, Little Women the Broadway Musical, Translations, The Threepenny Opera, The Light in the Piazza, Carousel, Batboy: The Musical, Annie Get Your Gun, Cabaret, and Talley’s Folly.
Dramaturg and second-year graduate student, Kristin Curley kicked off the rehearsal process with an “Etiquette Relay Race” for the cast and creative team, where participants were asked to lace a corset, stir their tea, and balance a book on their head (behaviors the characters of The Importance of Being Earnest would have been expected to master with style and panache).
According to Curley, “The heart of Wilde’s humor is in the way he doesn’t let even one custom go un-mocked. I’ve been using an etiquette book from the 1890s as a reference; paging through that is like seeing the jokes in the show laid out chapter by chapter. Wilde’s position as a queer, Irish outsider in an Imperial British, heteronormative world lets him acknowledge the frivolity of the ‘rules’ without losing sight of the heart that makes a good comedy work.”
To ensure the elegance and poise of these Victorian aristocrats, Joyce sought the expertise of Barrymore Award-winning Movement Director, Steve Smith. Smith has worked with the actors to create movement that is “stylized—but barely.” He encouraged the cast to combine the archetypal nature of the characters with the seemingly impossible amount of subtext conveyed with the subtlest of movements, adding, “The way humans communicate information is 80% body language. Even a woman taking her gloves off tells a story.” Smith is Assistant Professor of Drama at Delaware County Community College and the only full-time faculty member in the Drama department. He holds an MA in Theatre from Villanova University and an MFA in Acting from The University of Delaware’s Professional Theatre Training Program.
Dialect Coach Neill Hartley will be guiding the cast through the historic accent commonly referred to as ‘Received Pronunciation,’ or RP. Hartley challenges the actors with “an accent that would have only been acceptable for members of society with high social prestige.” Hartley brings his experience as an actor on the sets of House of Cards and The Sixth Sense as well as stage at many regional theatres. An assistant professor of voice and speech at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Hartley offers the Earnest cast a unique opportunity to build their skills and training in the British dialect.
In preparation for opening night, Harry Dietrich (John “Jack” Worthing) says audience members should expect to laugh. “It’s meant to be funny, and we’ll play it for the funny,” he continued. Tina Lynch (Miss Prism) wants the audience to “fall into the crazy lives of these aristocratic characters and the situations Wilde puts them in,” and Mary Lyon (Cecily Cardew) says everyone will fall in love with each and every character “in all of their quirky nuanced ways.”
Be sure to pick up a copy of The Importance of Being Earnest in Falvey Library before (or even after) you see the play, however, actor Kale Thompson (Lane/Merriman) notes, “The way we put it on the stage gives life to the text that reading alone doesn’t give it.”
The Importance of Being Earnest runs at Villanova Theatre in Vasey Hall until April 14, 2019. Speaker’s Night, immediately following the performance on Thursday, April 11 will feature a Q&A talkback with director Valerie Joyce, dramaturg Kristin Curley, and Dr. Marylu Hill, director of Villanova University’s Augustine and Culture seminar and an accomplished Oscar Wilde scholar.
Vasey Hall is located on Villanova’s main campus at the intersection of Lancaster & Ithan Avenues. Performances will be held Tuesdays – Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets run $21-$25 with discounts available for seniors, students, graduate theatre alumni, and groups. Tickets may be purchased at the Villanova Theatre Box Office (M-S, 12-5 pm) in person, by phone: (610) 519-7474, or online at www.villanovatheatre.org.
Born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, author, playwright and poet Oscar Wilde was a popular literary figure in late Victorian England, known for his brilliant wit, flamboyant style and infamous imprisonment for homosexuality. After graduating from Oxford University, he lectured as a poet, art critic and a leading proponent of the principles of aestheticism. In 1891, he published The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel which was panned as immoral by Victorian critics, but is now considered one of his most notable works. As a dramatist, many of Wilde’s plays were well received including his satirical comedies Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), his most famous play. Unconventional in his writing and life, Wilde’s affair with a young man led to his arrest on charges of “gross indecency” in 1895. He was imprisoned for two years and died in poverty three years after his release at the age of 46.
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