The University of Illinois Springfield is experimenting with time travel in its first of two theater productions of the 2015-16 season. Its production of Oscar Wilde's 1895 comedy "The Importance of Being Earnest", which opens Friday, is set in contemporary London rather than in the Victorian era in which it was written.
Director Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson, UIS associate professor and director of theatre, noted that Wilde did not intend "Earnest" to be a period piece, but a commentary on British society as his audience would have experienced it.
"The play takes place in 'the present,’" Thibodeaux-Thompson said. "We reset it to 2015, and we're pretty convinced it holds up" without much change in the script.
The plot turns on the real and assumed identities of two men: Jack Worthing (Alessandro Vazquez), who pretends to be his prodigal, city-dwelling "brother" Earnest, and Algernon Moncrieff (Christopher Vemagiri Marbaniang), who pretends to have a chronically-ill "friend" named Bunbury who lives in the country.
The tangled relationships between the men, their alter egos and the women who love them — or more precisely love the persons they believe them to be — gradually unravel with humorous results.
"This was Wilde's masterpiece, written when he was peaking in his career," Thibodeaux-Thompson said. "He is extremely witty and arguably the most quotable (British) author with the exception of Shakespeare. His quotes are on refrigerators all over America."
Cast members say the main characters are surprisingly easy to envision as milliennials rather than Victorians.
Algernon "is a cool dude with an air of knowing everything" and could be described as a "metrosexual" with refined tastes, said Marbaniang. "He's a young guy who loves extravagant living, and believes in the 'you only live once' thing."
Jack, meanwhile, represents "old money" as opposed to Algernon's "new money," Vazquez said. "He's not really uppity, but kind of stuffy, and likes things to be in order."
Thiboudeaux-Thompson believes "Earnest" has remained popular for more than a century because it has larger-than-life characters and involves timeless situations such as the generation gap, winning the approval of potential in-laws and divisions between social classes.
"It portrays life in a classist society, which America pretends not to be but is," he said. "And it's also genuinely funny."
This article appeared online in The State Journal-Register on October 28, 2015.
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