Algernon (Lebron Lackey) is delighted to learn details of his courtship and engagement with Cecily (Joanna Keeling), whom he has just met, in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” opening tonight on the Chattanooga Theatre Centre MainStage.Photo by Alex McMahan
IF YOU GO
What: "The Importance of Being Earnest."
When: 8 p.m. today, Saturday, Feb. 3-4 and 10-11; 7 p.m. Thursday and Feb. 9; 2:30 p.m. Feb. 5 and 12.
Where: MainStage, Chattanooga Theatre Centre, 400 River St.
Ten strangers walk into a library and begin reading Oscar Wilde.
That's not the set-up of a joke but the way the MainStage play opening tonight at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre unfolds.
"The Importance of Being Earnest," the 1895 Oscar Wilde comedy of manners, has been re-imagined in the mind of director Scott Dunlap.
Instead of being set in the Victorian era in which it was written, it is set in the modern-day reading room of the Mudie Public Library.
"It makes the words even more important," Dunlap said. "The emphasis is on what the people are saying."
In the library, the 10 strangers realize they are all reading Wilde's classic. One of the patrons begins to read the play out loud. One by one, he coerces his fellow bookworms into assuming roles in the play.
Eventually, as they find items in the library to use as props and represent costumes pieces, they are thrown fully into the story in which the main characters, in order to impress their respected loves, pretend their names are "Ernest."
"There's almost an improv element to it," said Dunlap. "It allows for some fun surprises. That's another reason I wanted to do it this way."
Other than varying elaborate Victorian costumes, traditional productions of "The Importance of Being Earnest" have few surprises, in his opinion.
"[The versions] are almost interchangeable," Dunlap said. "That allows the audience not to have to think about anything at all. This way allows [theatergoers] to be very active, to be involved."
Although the preface of the CTC production includes some of Wilde's words about the play and some stage directions, no words or characters are changed in the actual play, Dunlap said.
In fact, he said, the modern costumes may help illustrate the class system critical to an understanding of the Victorian era in which the play was set.
Dunlap said he got the idea for the new take on the comedy when he was walking past the public library in New York City and thought about a group of people who might begin to read the same play at once.
"It was a notion that made me chuckle," he said.
The comedy should appeal to audiences from middle-school students through adults, Dunlap said.
Indeed, he said, it's "a great way to introduce young people" to a classic. Set today, "it doesn't feel stiff and boring."
Today: 7 p.m. opening-night gala features reception with light hors d'oeuvres from Events With Taste, adult beverages, free parking and 8 p.m. performance.
Feb. 3: 8 p.m. show is followed by talk-back with director and cast.
Feb. 9: 7 p.m. performance includes real-time captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Feb. 10: 7 p.m. Girls Night Out reception features snacks and adult beverages, followed by 8 p.m. performance.
Feb. 14: "Earnest Turns 117!" Valentine's Day annual-fund benefit package offers free parking, 7 p.m. reception featuring heavy hors d'oeuvres and adult beverages, 8 p.m. performance, and champagne and chocolates at intermission; $35 in advance.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...