Webster’s Online Dictionary defines “earnest” as “serious, grave, solemn, important or weighty.”
But Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” is just about the opposite. A better description might be found in its subtitle: “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.”
As the second offering of the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, “The Importance of Being Earnest” opens in Tulane’s Lupin Theatre on Saturday night. It will run three weekends, ending Saturday, July 25.
Set in Victorian England during the glory days of the British Empire, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is the story of two bachelors, John (Jack) Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, who lead double lives as they court the desirable Gwendolyn Fairfax and Cecily Cardew.
Their attempts at deception result in humorous consequences, especially when they have to deal with the formidable Lady Bracknell, who represents the highest echelons of a stuffy British aristocracy.
The cast includes James Bartelle (Worthing), Patrick Bowen (Moncrieff), Clare Moncrief (Lady Bracknell), Julia DeLois (Cardew), Lyndsay Kimball (Fairfax), Danny Bowen (the Rev. Canon Chasuble), Jason Carter (Lane and Merriman) and Tracey Collins (Miss Prism). Jessica Podewell is the director.
“It’s cast so well that I just get to sit back and enjoy myself and laugh,” said Podewell, who just wrapped up a stint with Southern Rep in “Detroit” and is directing the Patchwork Players’ production of “Pinocchio” at Rivertown Theater. “This is a really lovely group of delightful individuals.
“From beginning to end, you don’t stop laughing. It’s only a couple of lines before another joke comes in. It’s just written so well. So tried and true.”
Podewell said she was inspired early in her theatrical career by Moncrief, who has been the Shakespeare Festival’s managing director for the past 17 years.
“When I saw her do ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ (in the early 1990s) it absolutely and fundamentally changed my life,” Podewell said. “I went from just wanting to act to really getting into quality work.
“So, when Clare approached me about this project, I instantly said yes because I can’t believe that I’m going to be so lucky to sit in a room and watch her create Lady Bracknell.”
Lady Bracknell is, of course, the “heavy” in the production. “It’s a role I’ve always wanted to play, and I’m totally, thoroughly enjoying it,” Moncrief said.
But, she said, “Our Lady Bracknell may be a little more complex than what people may have seen in other productions of this. We’ve chosen to show that she has more to her than just being a blowhard. She’s very manipulative, and sometimes she’s nice, sometimes she’s not. Her sarcasm is very biting, even though she fails at it sometimes.
“But, as soon as people change into something that fits her standards, then all of sudden, she is as lovely and pleasant as can be.”
Wilde fits well into the Shakespeare Festival, a season of classic theater that usually includes a work or two outside the Bard’s repertoire, she said.
“We knew we wanted to do ‘Earnest’ as one of our lagniappe productions because, although we focus on Shakespeare primarily, we also do classical works,” Moncrief said.
“And, of course, Shakespeare was a master of presenting real human beings in every possible situation, as does Wilde. So this certainly fits with that. Shakespeare seasons accommodate a lot of things, and we felt like it was a nice match.”
Ticket prices range from $15-$25. Curtain times are Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays and the final Saturday at 1:30 p.m. For information, call (504) 865-5106 or visit www.neworleans shakespeare.org.