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‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ opens Journeyman’s season with panache

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The Importance of Being Earnest

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By switching all genders of all characters in Oscar Wilde’s farce, The Importance of Being Earnest, Journeyman Theatre scores a TKO with a wildly funny comedy that guarantees to bring laughs as the audience keeps up with the mistaken identities, switched genders, with performances beginning Feb. 12 and running through Feb. 23.

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Although written and first performed in Victorian England, The Importance of Being Ernest never gained fame until later but countless productions and adaptations of the Oscar Wilde comedy classic continue to surface and entertain audiences.

“Wilde was an outrageous figure in his day,” Ian. R. Crawford, director, said.” We can easily tell because his work is still outrageous. His one-liners are unrivaled and his wordplay so quick it makes ones’ head spin. Wilde was always flamboyant in his life, and his unabashedness about his sexuality resulted in a huge public scandal, a trial that shocked the world, and eventually led to his too early death.”

According to Wikapedia, Wilde’s comedy only played 86 performances before he was imprisoned for his homosexuality and the play closed as a result. Later, the play became a huge success on stages worldwide and Wilde stands as a successful writer of farce.

“I was not interested in handling this play with reverence, putting it behind glass and treating it as a dusty museum piece. Wilde wasn’t interested in reverence. In fact, this play takes direct and clear aim at every aspect of Victorian society, leaving no one unscathed,” Crawford said.

The special Valentine’s day performance marks the 119 anniversary of the first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895, Crawford said.

“When Journeyman asked me to take on this project, I knew I had to match Wilde’s irreverence, and at the same time make the play ring true,” Crawford said.

As director, Crawford praises and notes Wilde’s irreverence for everything serious and goes even beyond that to another atmosphere in his bold reimagined production, featuring all cross-gender casting to highlight Wilde’s skewering of traditional gender roles. The new concept, Crawford thinks, will cause even more fun for the audience.

“Casting men as women and women as men also has the added interest of presenting a duplicity of gender in each of the actor/characters, making an onstage kiss between a female and a male loaded with gender permutations (a man kissing a woman is also a woman kissing a woman, a man kissing a man, and a woman kissing a man). In essence, it is our way of “queering” the production - a notion I believe might give Wilde a little giggle,” Crawford said.

“Behaving well is very important but having fun is much nicer. Meet Jack and Algernon, two of London’s most eligible bachelors. Algernon is a bit of a bad boy, Jack, is much more Earnest. Join these two misfits on their tangled quest for love. Will they get the girls, or be thwarted by the fearsome Lady Bracknell?”

The comedy of trivial manners by the iconic bad boy of Victorian England includes abandoned babies, mistaken identities, covert engagements, wooing suitors, and witty wordplay ever written in the English language, Crawford said.

Wilde’s comedy, The Importance of Bring Earnest takes all the stodgy English traditions of Victorian times and holds them up to ridicule. He pokes fun at the aristocracy, inbreeding, wealth, social-climbing, marriage, courtship, education, and the facades of the socially acceptable.

Heap credit on Crawford for casting the play with such a talented crew of actors who played the cross gender with individual flair. The girls, as men were funny as English cads with a hidden double life, one for the country and one for the city.

As the bad boy, Algernon, Chelsey Tighe gives a very funny performance. She/he displays all the characteristics of the rich, practical joker who has too much time on his hands and nothing to do but mess with his friend Jack/Earnest’s love life. She’s witty and fast-talking and the focus of most of the charade.

Next, is Margaret Hanzlick as Jack/Earnest in a difficult role as the straight man to Algernon’s foolishness but with twists of his own mischief and misadventures. Hanzlick gives a strong performance of the lovesick Earnest pining for the hand of Miss Fairfax.

Strong, meanspirited, and the symbol of Victorian aristocracy, Justin Speer wears the role (and extreme costumes) of Lady Brackell. Speer is hilarious from his first entrance through his curtain call. His makeup, wigs, fingernails–all set the stage for him to command the stage when in a scene. He’s funny and scary–sometimes both at the same time. Speer is believe able and could have a second career as a female impersonator. He’s wonderful and campy.

When watching, be aware of Zach Chaykin as Gwendolen Faifax. Chaykin can steal any scene. He’s absolutely outrageous as Miss Fairfax with his gestures, mannerisms, costumes, high heels, and short skirts. The audience can’t help but laugh at his performance.

Matt Sweeten, as the extremely dumb, Cecily is a match for Chaykin in several scenes. He nails the part of the aristocratic elite ingenue that thinks beauty wins over brains. Sweetin buys into the character from the first and gives a great performance.

The other character of note, Lucas T. McVey as Miss Prism brings laughs as she is the reason and cause of most of the confusion of the characters. She’s the prudish tutor and former nanny that somehow loses a baby at a train station. McVey plays her as sweet at times, and vulnerable at other times. Probably the funniest scene is the abject terror she faces when Lady Bracknell toward the conclusion. McVey is precious in his facials and physical portrayal of Prism.

Rounding out the cast, Heather Hare plays the parson and Elissa Schrader plays the butler. Unfortunately, neither character allows for much character development and only help to advance the plot. Give both credit for blending into the craziness of The Importance of Bring Earnest. Each provides a few laughs in their brief scenes.

“Cross casting all parts is a bold choice but it fits Wilde’s text perfectly. Every character in the play is a great deceiver, each has their own secrets, and each has an outward pose they present to the world. Our talented cast of actors has been relieved of the need to be “realistic” and tonight will give you the gift of an honest portrayal of the ridiculousness that is human existence. As Wilde himself said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth,” Crawford said.

The Importance of Being Earnest is a wonderful, funny romp through the eyes of Oscar Wilde. Everyone should see this production of the show, It's clever, imaginative, funny,and a classic.

Set and costume design by Ian R. Crawford, sound design by Rustin R. Bolejack and lighting by Kerry Chafin. Jonathan Jensen is assistant director and dialect coach, Justin Cave is dramaturg, and Christopher Bowe is the stage manager.

“If you are already enraptured with the play,” Crawford said, “or if you have never seen it before, you will not want to miss this unique, lush production.”

Director Ian R. Crawford’s work has been seen in New York, San Francisco, and recently in the Kansas City Fringe Festival

Tickets available at boxofficetickets.com or by calling 1 (800) 494-8497. Performances run Feb. 12-15 at 7:30p.m., Sun., Feb 15, at 2:30p.m., Feb. 19 -22 at 7:30p.m., and Sun., Feb 23, at 2:30p.m. Just Off Broadway Theater is located at: 3051 Central Ave. Kansas City, MO 64108 For further information check the website: www. journeymantheatre.com

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