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Guthrie revives 'Earnest'

John Skelley as Algernon Moncrieff (from left), Heidi Armbruster as Gwendolyn Fairfax and Nick Mennell as Jack Worthing in the Guthrie Theater production of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance Of Being Earnest." (Guthrie Theater)

MINNEAPOLIS --Currently Guthrie Theater is presenting a sparkling revival of Oscar Wilde's classic, "The Importance of Being Earnest," first produced in England (1895.) The matinee we attended had a full house, and the audience showed its enthusiasm from opening scene to the finale.

Ernest was a popular man's name during the Victorian age. Add one letter, omit capitalization, the word becomes earnest, meaning intensely serious, Wilde's clever little pun with his play's title. This comedy of manners involves two friends, Jack and Algernon, described as dandies, fashionable bachelors, both living rather harmless double lives. Jack calls himself Ernest while in town and Jack in the country; Algy has invented an invalid friend in the country named Bunbury.

When living at his country estate, Jack pretends he has a brother in the city named Ernest, who often gets into trouble and needs to be rescued. Both men use these imaginary persons as excuses to avoid unwanted social engagements.

The extra identities entangle the gentlemen in a web of lies as they pursue two young ladies. In addition, Jack's unknown origin may prevent his marriage to the charming Gwedolen. As an infant, he was adopted after being found abandoned in a handbag left at Victoria Station.

Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen's dominating mother (who also happens to be Algernon's aunt), advises Jack, whom she knows only as Ernest, to acquire a well-born blood relation, preferably a baron, as quickly as possible before an engagement can be announced.

Meanwhile Algernon, intrigued at the idea of meeting Jack's pretty young ward, Cecily, at the country estate, decides to impersonate the troublesome "brother" Ernest by paying a surprise visit to Cecily. Love develops at first-sight until Uncle Jack returns home, angry at finding Algy posing as Ernest and secretly sneaking into Jack's property.

More hilarity follows when further complications turn this somewhat absurd plot into what modern playwright Neil Simon (known like Wilde for his humor and one-liners) calls the best comedy farce ever written. Besides Wilde's quick-witted repartee, his play proves to be a keen satire on the strictness of Victorian morals and class customs.

At the Guthrie, "Earnest" receives an elegant staging. Each actor appears to be an almost perfect choice for his or her role. Linda Thorson's Lady Bracknell, often considered the central character, seems majestically aristocratic. The tone of her firm speaking voice leaves no doubt as to her being in charge; no one in the family would dare to become engaged without her consent.

John Skelley, with his mischievous facial expressions and rapier wit, makes Algernon a very natural young man-about-town, while Nick Mennell, though a less colorful character, presents an effective contrast in the role of Jack.

Heidi Armbruster, lovely and completely real as Gwendolen, is a feminist who refuses to be controlled by her mother or by any man. Erin Krakow, the adorable Cecily, is charismatic in this ingenue role. She delighted us as she twirled around the garden, thrilled to be young and in love.

Smaller roles are handled with finesse by Suzanne Warmanen, Cecily's no-nonsense governess, "a picture of respectability," and by Richard Iglewski, a veteran of more than 85 Guthrie productions, well-cast as a country rector.

Servants have memorable bit parts: a butler orchestrates the moving of props and furniture as if he were conducting a symphony, while Algernon's valet offers cups of tea and dainty sandwiches for the ladies in a precise and unusual way. These small details boost the enjoyment level even higher.

Director Joe Dowling and his acting ensemble keep even the "talkiest" scenes bright and witty, avoiding any hint of slapstick. The handsome set design allows for changes from London flat to country garden to a city manor house. Particularly outstanding are giant pink roses surrounding the garden site, created in the same pink hue as Cecily's dress.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" continues its merry romp in performances through Nov. 8.