A Wilde ride back to the past

Showboat comedy resurrects showmanship and wordplay of yesteryear

Erin Adler

If Oscar Wilde were alive today, the tantalizing combination of his plays and his personal life would certainly have people talking – not to mention the editors of Us Weekly.

But Wilde would likely care as little today as he did a hundred years ago; after all, talking was what he – and his characters – did best.

Appropriately, the University of Minnesota Showboat Players’ production of Wilde’s final play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” remains true to this emphasis on dialogue. The tactic allows the play and the characters’ clever one-liners to shine, despite the challenges of performing on the smaller stage aboard the Minnesota Centennial Showboat.

The play’s witty banter, found within this classic story of two jovial bachelors who fabricate identities to win the hearts of two young women, was a definite draw for director and 1966 Showboat alum Jon Cranney.

“When they asked me (to direct this show), I jumped at the chance. It’s one of those great plays you always wanted to do as a director,” he said.

Cranney cites the farce’s “wonderful construction,” and the ways it has fun with language and words as reasons he has wanted to work with the script.

The language, though, also presents a challenge.

“Actors today are not asked to use epigrammatic language,” he said, noting that the training he received years earlier working with Tyrone Guthrie helped him collaborate with the actors.

The cast worked extensively on both the stylized language and their British accents. The results of their efforts were fruitful, he said.

Betsy Reisz, who plays Lady Bracknell, observed that Wilde’s comedic use of language seems to stand the test of time.

“The lines will get a laugh even if the delivery is not flawless,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Another essential part of the University performance has its roots in British vaudeville. It is the tradition of performing olios, or short musical interludes, between acts and at the beginning and end of the play, while on a showboat. The pieces, which are choreographed and sung by one or several cast members, are lighthearted in tone.

The olios in this production were researched for historical accuracy by musical arranger Anita Ruth.

Cranney commented that integrating the olios was “more difficult” with this play than most, as it was already a comedy. Olios were typically used to break up scenes in a melodrama, he said.

Indeed, the silliness of a song like “Where Did You Get That Hat?,” while performed skillfully, seemed an unnecessary diversion from an already comical play. That said, however, the short ditties were a hit with many of the older audience members.

Cranney agrees the showboat has its own distinct audience that attends shows regularly.

Reisz said many audience members are “eager to recount their memories of the boat.” Her hilarious rendition of “There Are Fairies at the Bottom of My Garden” was a notable crowd favorite.

One difference between today’s audiences and those of 1895 is their acceptance of the social criticism Wilde scattered throughout the script. While a quip about children born out of wedlock gained chuckles at this performance, Reisz said, it was shocking to audiences of yesteryear.

It is instead the intrigue of Wilde that endures to this day – the intrigue of a master playwright who found himself embroiled in scandal only days after “Earnest” opened, eventually imprisoned for a homosexual affair.

Maybe some obsessions with celebrity and gossip never change.