Georgia Shakespeare is going Wilde, as in Oscar Wilde, for the first time this summer with THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, running from Fri. July 6 through August 3 at the Conant Performing Arts Center at Oglethorpe University. The plot is a familiar one – two young friends, Jack and Algernon, both masquerade as a libertine named Ernest, to win the hearts of their unsuspecting loves, Gwendolyn ad Cecily.
You may ask what’s 20th century about that? But in keeping with the notorious playwright’s own Bohemian lifestyle, what follows is no stiff Victorian comedy of manners but a frenzied farce with plenty of political incorrectedness that has stood the test of time. Plus we have to admit we just love both Oscar Wilde and Georgia Shakespeare and have great memories of sitting on the lawn, picnicking and watching some great theatre under the original tent in the late 1980s, so we think it’s mighty cool that the company has survived, grown and prospered into an Atlanta summer tradition that performs more than the Bard!
What better reason to name director Sabin Epstein Kool Kat of the Week. He may not be named Earnest but he was happy to sit down and share some secrets about why it was time to go Wilde, what he and the cast have done to keep this much-acted play fresh and funny and a few memories of the festival’s early outdoor days.
ATLRetro: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST has been a standard for theatre companies for more than a century. What do you think is the secret behind its seemingly timeless appeal?
It seems people have been falling in love since time began and sometimes the course of true love doesn’t run smoothly. We love complications, of our own making or other people’s making. EARNEST is one very complicated and clever love story with wonderfully droll and daffy characters and very clever logic.
In Shakespeare, there’s quite a bit of gender-bending. Is that why you decided to stir up the sexes with a couple of characters?
The reversed gender casting just happened, it wasn’t planned- these seemed the best actors for the role, each bringing interesting qualities to the characters that helped open up a new way of looking at them.
Without giving too much away, what else have you played with to change things up and keep the play fresh?
The visual design of the piece is nontraditional. We started with the Lewis Carroll/Alice in Wonderland aspects of the play, the upside-down logic, and let the design evolve from there. We’re using a unit setting, so it has to accommodate both indoors and outdoors simultaneously – the overall look of the piece is theatrical, tightly controlled (like the world it is mirroring) and, I believe, not lacking in wit.
This play contains some marvelously witty dialogue and situations. Do you have a particular favorite scene to direct and why?
The real challenge is in looking at so many famous scenes and famous lines and famous characters and forgetting about what made them famous in the first place and to just dive in to the piece as if its a brand new play. In that regard, every scene has been fun to work with and all the characters fascinating.
You’ve assembled a nice line-up of seasoned Atlanta actors including some long-time Georgia Shakespeare regulars, such as Megan McFarland. Can you talk a little about the cast?
We’ve had a wonderful time in the rehearsal room; the cast is a delightful mix of actors new to me and dear friends; the atmosphere has been relaxed, loose and playful, due largely to the trust and experience generated playing in rep over the years. I’ve wanted to challenge those actors I’ve worked with before with non-type-casting, and get to know the new actors playing into their strengths. They’re all adept at working with “high language,” which is a requirement for this piece – anyone who can speak Shakespeare and Shaw and make them make sense/resonate with contemporary audiences is perfectly suited to this material, and everyone in the cast fits the bill.
Finally you must be proud at how Georgia Shakespeare has grown and blossomed over the past nearly 30 years. Do you ever miss those early days under a tent in a field and do you have a favorite memory?
The early days were full of adventure and the unknown – even though we’re now in air-conditioned rehearsal rooms, that spirit of adventure seems to thrive with Georgia Shakes and that’s why I love returning to the company. My first project here was MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING in the second season, in the tent; I’ve loved working on Moliere and Orton with the company as well as Shakespeare- wonderful memories of THE MISER, THE TEMPEST, TWELFTH NIGHT, MERCHANT OF VENICE, KING LEAR, WHAT THE BUTLER SAW, the black and white shows, the colorful shows – they’re all my children. How could I possibly single one or two out? It’s just wonderful to have the opportunity to do work I’m invested in with a company that isn’t afraid to take risks and be adventurous and truly supports its artists.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is running in repertory with this year’s other productions, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, ILLYRIA: A TWELFTH NIGHT MUSICAL and THE EMPEROR AND THE NIGHTINGALE, a world-premiere family musical based on a Hans Christian Anderson story (July 14-Aug 3), click here. A fun night to see the show is Friday July 13, when you can stay late and see cast members also present the Girls (and Boys) Gone Oscar Wilde Cabaret, no holds barred at this “Wildely” naughty performance (*Appropriate for ages 13 and up), after the 8 p.m show. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.gashakespeare.org or call the Georgia Shakespeare Box Office at 404.504.1473.