Funny falsehoods drive BYU’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

JoAnne Wadsworth
Director Rodger Sorensen said “The Importance of Being Earnest” has been performed several times at BYU in the past. Here, Algernon (Spencer Hunsicker) and Jack (Sean Worsley) discuss their alter egos. (JoAnne Wadsworth)

BYU’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” takes audiences for a jaunt of laughter and confusion set in Victorian England all based on an ironic play on the word “earnest.”

The play is widely seen as the culminating work of Oscar Wilde’s literary career, first performed in London in 1895. “The Importance of Being Earnest” director Rodger Sorensen said the play has been performed throughout the world thousands of times since then and has become an audience favorite.

BYU theater directors decided “The Importance of Being Earnest” would be performed during the same semester as “Travesties,” a play by Tom Stoppard in response to “Earnest.” Sorensen said the two plays are very much in communication with each other, sharing character types and similar scenes. BYU set and costume designers emphasized the interplay by making the two shows echoes of each other.

“We tried to create these resonances between the two shows,” Sorensen said, “both orally and visually, and in the set and in the costumes.”

Rehearsals started late because of an unexpected need to recast one of the lead roles: Lady Bracknell, the imposing mother-in-law who drives most of the plot. Theatre and media arts professor Stephanie Breinholt, who was originally cast for the part, unexpectedly adopted a child and was unable to perform.

Actors attended rehearsal for three to four hours a night, five days a week, perfecting British accents and sharpening their witty prose.

The humor in the show is centered mostly on wordplay and situations stemming from hypocrisy. Wilde’s wit is really what has made the play stand out for all these years, Sorensen said.

“It is timeless in its wit and humor, and it’s timeless in the way he puts those words and ideas together,” Sorensen said. “He plays with words in such a wonderful way, and that is what makes it wonderful to watch.”

JoAnne Wadsworth
Algernon (Spencer Hunsicker) convinces Cecily (Meg Flinders) his name is Earnest. The show plays on themes of sincerity and superficiality. (JoAnne Wadsworth)

Pulling off the humor comes down to trusting the existing lines, Sorensen said. Wilde believed in art for art’s sake and fun for fun’s sake, so he wrote the play without deep meanings or themes. Sorensen said the best humor happens when actors decide to step out of the way and just let the lines be.

Spencer Hunsicker, who plays Algernon, said his role in the play is “to be very, very serious about very not serious things.”

Hunsicker, a junior studying acting, has been in theater productions since high school. He said the biggest thing he has learned from this production is, ironically, the importance of honesty in life. The paradox of people’s hypocrisy in the play creates funny and odd situations that can also be found in everyday life, Hunsicker said.

Emma Widtfelt, also a junior studying acting, said theater has mesmerized her since she was 6 years old. She first took a role as Prancer the reindeer in a play about Santa Claus, and has been acting ever since.

“(When you’re part of a play) you create this world,” Widtfelt said. “It becomes real to you, and it’s just magic.”

“The Importance of Being Earnest” runs through Nov. 12, 2016, in the HFAC’s Pardoe Theatre. “Travesties” opens on Nov. 11 with a final performance on Dec. 3.

“Come ready to have fun,” Sorensen said. “That’s about all you need to know.”

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