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Arizona Theatre Company opens season with Wilde's "Importance of Being Earnest."

Oscar Wilde was Irish.

That’s reason enough to see a play by him. The Irish, after all, have a great command of both language and humor.

But there are plenty of other reasons to catch Wilde’s most oft-produced play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which Arizona Theatre Company opens in previews Saturday.

The production’s director, Stephen Wrentmore isn’t Irish, but the Brit has a deep appreciation of it, and a deep understanding of Wilde’s work, thanks to a college professor who was an international expert on the playwright.

Here’s Wrentmore’s take on the 1895 play about social mores, Victorian society, repression, manners, love and deception, all wrapped up in razor-sharp wit.

The look: Wrentmore is going for a “fresh look” in this period piece.

“Whenever I’ve approached a classical work, I want to make sure that it doesn’t feel as though it lives in a museum,” said Wrentmore in a phone interview.

“I want to find a way that it will resonate today without sacrificing Wilde’s language.”

A key approach, he said, is in the design. In Wilde’s day, Wrentmore explained, people would go listen to a play. These days, we say we’re going to go see a play.

“When we experience theater today, we expect a visual and visceral experience,” said Wrentmore. The design should “illuminate the language and motif around the play to help us understand the play more deeply.”

The dark side: “Earnest” is very, very funny. Almost every line is packed with Wilde’s clever writing and pointed wit. But he has some serious things to say behind that humor. He examines marriage and whether or not it is “pleasant or unpleasant.” Hypocrisy is a theme that runs through the play. And Wilde questions morality, class, and, especially, stuffy Victorian mores.

“He’s taking a razor to a class system that he finds disgusting, but that he’s happy to be a part of,” said Wrentmore.

But Wilde was a pretty smart cookie.

“He wrote for a commercial theater, so he understood how to put a play together and what the audience wanted to see,” said Wrentmore. “He would take them to the edge without crossing a line.”

What gives it legs: This Wilde creation has barely had a rest since it premiered in London. That’s not surprising, said Wrentmore.

“Really, really good comedies have always survived, and this is one of the greatest ever written,” he said. “Wilde is incessantly, inherently funny. Page after page after page, it’s funny.”

A favorite line? Wrentmore struggled with this one — almost all the lines in the play are his favorites.

But pressed, he came up with: “My dear fellow, the truth isn’t quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl.”

“One of the things I love about this play is that everyone is appearing to be morally pure and living on high ground.”  In reality, he says, the decorum is all surface. None of the characters are what they appear to be.

Wilde’s language, says Wrentmore, celebrates the sound of English. “He puts words together that build to a symphonic sound,” he says. “No word is accidental.”


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Reporter

Kathleen has covered the arts for the Star for 20 years. Previously, she covered business, news and features for the Tucson Citizen. A near-native of Tucson, she is continually amazed about the Old Pueblo's arts scene and feels lucky to be covering it.

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