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Release: Sept. 24, 1999

Wilde comedy classic 'The Importance of Being Earnest' opens University Theatres season

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Oscar Wilde's comic skewering of pretense and conventionality, "The Importance of Being Earnest," will open the University Theatres 1999-2000 Mainstage season at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 7 in E.C. Mabie Theatre of the University of Iowa Theatre Building. Additional performances will be at 8 p.m. Oct. 8, 9, 16 and 20, and at 3 p.m. Sundays,
Oct. 10 and 17.

The production is provocatively paired with Moises Kaufman's "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," which dramatizes the scandalous sex trials that destroyed Wilde's flamboyant career in the midst of the international success of "The Importance of Being Earnest." After the "trial of the century," Wilde spent two years in prison at hard labor and lived only three years beyond his release -- exiled, broken in health and spirit, and living under a pseudonym.

More than a century after its first production in 1895, "The Importance of Being Earnest" is an acknowledged masterpiece of modern comedy -- beloved by audiences and studied by scholars.

The play animates the amorous misadventures of two young men who have taken to bending the truth to add a dash of excitement to their lives. One, a country dweller, has invented a troublesome brother, Ernest, to give him an excuse to frolic in the city. The other uses an imaginary sick friend to escape the city for adventures in the country. Their deceptions eventually run afoul of each other, placing their romantic pursuits in chaotic jeopardy.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" was Wilde's most scathing satire of the upper classes, portraying them as preoccupied with triviality and propriety. For example, there is Gwendolyn Fairfax, who is intent on marrying someone named Ernest, solely because the name inspires in her confidence and "vibrations."

Of course, the chaos of love and identity is resolved in the most improbable of coincidences, and the play ends with everyone happy and the lovers embracing.

Director Eric Forsythe, faculty member in the department of theatre arts, says, "This is a play about young renegades who, remarkably, are able to get exactly what they want without compromising their ideals. Of course, they're amazingly lucky, which is the source of the play's humor, irony and fantasy."

Born in Ireland, Wilde was already renowned as a wit and raconteur when he arrived at Oxford University. His quick, sharp tongue and eccentric flair soon won both admiration and animosity from London society.

After a lecture tour of frontier America that left him observing, "In America, life is one long expectoration," Wilde published a steady stream of stories, poetry, essays and criticism through the late 1880s. His enduring works from that period include "The Canterville Ghost" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray."

In the 1890s he emerged as a playwright, and "The Importance of Being Earnest" found him at the height of his popularity. "Lady Windemere's Fan" and "A Woman of No Importance" were popular successes, and when "Earnest" opened, his "An Ideal Husband" was still playing to large and enthusiastic audiences.

But only months after the opening of "Earnest," Wilde was accused of sodomy and convicted of "gross indecency." The play continued its successful ways, but Wilde's name was removed from the programs. "Earnest" became not only his best and most popular play, but also his last.

Over the decades that followed his death, Wilde's image has varied from witty dandy to vile pervert, artistic genius to gay icon.

In recent years, Wilde's work has experienced a renaissance, and his wit has proved to be as biting and laugh-provoking as ever.

The University Theatres Mainstage production features scenic design by Alison Ford, costume designer Kaoime Malloy, lighting design by Bryon Winn, and sound design by Katharine Horowitz.

Tickets for "The Importance of Being Earnest" are $15 ($7 for UI students, senior citizens and youth). Theatergoers may choose to buy their "Earnest" tickets as part of a Wilde Card, which offers "Gross Indecency" at half price.

Tickets may also be purchased at a substantial discount as part of University Theatres three-play or five-play season packages. Other plays in the Mainstage season are the world premiere of UI alumnus Rinde Eckert's "A Tale We Told the Queen on the Evening of the Fourth Day of our Journey to the East," Nov. 11-21; "The Firebugs" by Max Frisch, Feb. 3-13; "Orestes 2.0" by Charles Mee, Feb. 17-27; and Shakespeare's "The Tempest," April 6-16.

Hancher box office hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and 1-3 p.m. Sunday. From the local calling area or outside Iowa, dial (319) 335-1160. Long distance within Iowa and western Illinois is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to (319) 353-2284. Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction.

People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158. This number will be answered by box office personnel prepared to offer assistance with handicapped parking, wheelchair access and seating, hearing augmentation and other services. The line is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.

The entire University Theatres season, including Stage Two productions and the Iowa Playwrights Festival, is detailed in a free brochure, "Looking Back, Looking Forward," which is available from the Hancher box office or from the Department of Theatre Arts at 319-335-2700.

(NOTE TO EDITORS: A separate release on "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" will be provided Oct. 1.)