Something Wilde

Crisis Point Theatre

The Importance of Being Earnest
University Theatre

TWO VERY DIFFERENT sides of Oscar Wilde are currently on display at the University of Minnesota, including one that few people are aware of--and perhaps for good reason. At Rarig Center's main stage, the university theater department's MFA graduate students--aided by guest director Wendy Lehr and a faculty member or two--are presenting a brisk and well-acted The Importance of Being Earnest, which overflows with the kind of conspicuous wit and charming irreverence we have come to know and love in our friend Oscar. The university's version is so good, in fact, that it puts virtually every recent professional Twin Cities production of Wilde to shame.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the river, in the basement of the East Bank's Peik Gymnasium, Crisis Point Theatre--a collective of theater students and MFA graduates dedicated to providing a more "dangerous" alternative to the official theater department's mainstream fare--is slogging through Wilde's strange and unaccountably witless Salome, a seldom-produced play whose uncharacteristic moralism and mystifying ungainliness have vexed scholars for the better part of a century.

Written in 1893, two years before Earnest, Salome is the weird cousin in the Wilde canon. Brooding, petulant, and utterly humorless, it contains almost none of the fanciful spirit and deft wordplay one normally associates with Wilde. You'll find no lampooning of English high society here: Set in the court of King Herod at the time of Christ, the play revolves around the lustful manipulations of Herod's step-daughter, Salome (played by Maggie Chestovich), a selfish temptress who falls in love with a prophet and doesn't take kindly to having her affections rebuffed.

Crisis Point's evident take on the play is that in writing Salome, Wilde was daring to be dull. Toward that end, director Alan Sikes plants half of his cast in one spot for most of the play, forcing them to stand there like set pieces while delivering their lines in a stultifying monotone. Granted, some credit should be given to anyone who can keep a straight face while uttering lines like "Princess, who art a garden of myrrh." But Crisis Point's production is so pretentious and uninspired that it ultimately resembles a 90-minute Calvin Klein commercial.

The only actor who escapes this conceptual stranglehold is Cherri Macht, as Queen Herodias, Salome's mother. Macht's sassy, irreverent performance hints at what Wilde may have been attempting when he penned Salome. The rest of the production offers hardly a clue. Then again, another person who is reported to have been perplexed by Salome is James Joyce; perhaps we're in good company.

No such problems plague University Theatre's The Importance of Being Earnest. From the first scene to the last, the confidence and control exhibited by these UM students is nothing short of remarkable. Sean Dooley immediately takes command as the spoiled and frivolous Algernon, who sets the farce in motion by pretending to be the rogue (and entirely fictitious) brother of his friend, Jack (Tim Sharp).

Dooley's first 15 minutes on stage are so impressive that it's hard to imagine how the rest of the cast will match him--yet match him they do. Each new character is exquisitely defined and executed, adding layers and depths to Wilde's world of Victorian social intrigue.

One stroke of genius is the casting of a man, Richard Walters, as Lady Bracknell. Standing about 6 feet 4 inches, Walters in a puffy Victorian gown is an imposing sight, and his hilariously stodgy Lady Bracknell is the most entertaining interpretation of that character I have seen. And when, in the second act, the action moves to Jack's country house, Sarah Overman delivers the coup de grâce with a marvelously spirited and slightly mischievous performance as Cecily, Jack's 18-year-old ward.

Director Wendy Lehr, known primarily for her work at the Children's Theatre Company, has coaxed an amazingly balanced ensemble performance out of these students. The texture of the play is further enhanced by David Orton's elegant and quite lavish (for the UM, anyway) set design, and sharp period costumes (designed by Carrie Lawrence); they manage to avoid looking like the standard prop-shop garb. Indeed, every MFA student involved with this unfailingly fun production deserves to graduate with honors; call it the Importance of Being Amateur.

Salome continues at the Peik Gymnasium auditorium through February 21; call 626-1007. The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Rarig Center Stoll Thrust Theatre through February 21; call 377-2224.

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