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"Earnest" college students share a classic this weekend

Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Minnesota West will present the play "The Importance of Being Earnest" with cast members (front row from left) Kaia Nowatzki, Lea Wilmas, Alyssa Nelson, Sara Hartzler and (back row from left) Marcus Jenkins, Tony Falk, Andrew Alcorn, Teddy Joseph, Christopher Bah and Derek Cowles.

WORTHINGTON -- An assemblage of exuberant --and, yes, earnest -- young people is eager to publicly demonstrate their theatrical prowess in three performances of "The Importance of Being Earnest" at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, Worthington campus, this weekend.

Under the direction of Eric Parrish, the cast of 10 students will perform what many have called the "perfect comedy" by Oscar Wilde at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

"We're ready to hear people laughing," affirmed Kaia Nowatzki, a second-year student from Luverne who assumes the role of Miss Prism in the play. "We want to know other people think we're really funny."

"Everything in the script has double meanings, so it's hilarious in multiple respects," added Lea Wilmes, a post secondary education option student from Sanborn acting the part of Cecily Cardew. "That's what makes it so brilliant."

The flowery Victorian language of the late 19th century and pun-rich dialogue is also what makes the play so challenging for young actors, the group discovered.

"It's right up there with Shakespeare in difficulty," said Alyssa Nelson, who clearly relishes the role of femme fatale Gwendolen Fairfax. Nelson, a Jackson native in her second year at Minnesota West, delivers such lines as "My ideal has always been to love someone by the name of Ernest. It's a divine name; it has music of its own -- it produces vibrations," with flirtatious flair.

The plot revolves around mistaken identities, secret engagements and lovers' entanglements, with young gentlemen Algernon Moncrieff (depicted by Anthony Falk of Slayton) and Jack Worthing (Andy Alcorn of Walnut Grove) each having concocted a secret identity to allow them the freedom to do as they wish without worrying about the constraints and expectations of family and society. When they decide to get serious about love and marriage, however, their secret maneuverings create humorous and seemingly insurmountable complications that ultimately get straightened out -- ending with the famous last line delivered by Alcorn as Jack, "I've now realized for the first time in my life the vital importance of being earnest."

An earlier double entendre-filled exchange between Jack and Algernon goes like this: "When one is in town, one amuses oneself. When one is in the country, one amuses others," says Jack, with Algernon retorting, "Why are you Ernest in town and Jack in the country?"

"Wilde was a master of puns, and the whole show is one big long story joke, with the last line of the play being the punch line," revealed Parrish.

Now in his third year as music and theater instructor at Minnesota West, Parrish also advises the school's theater club, which sponsors this production.

"We held auditions in the first week of the semester, and at the start we spent a lot of time working on accents, learning how to tell a joke in the English style and watching a lot of Monty Python," shared Parrish, noting the cast rehearsed three times a week throughout the term. "The students are getting quite good with the language, but it is very artistic and challenging, with lots of adjectives and adverbs, and it's all about comedic timing."

Although he has never acted in "The Importance of Being Earnest" himself, Parrish confirms it is a mainstay of theater literature and was staged to enthusiastic reviews last fall by the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

"Some have called this the funniest thing ever written in the English language," related Parrish. "It's certainly the benchmark of what comedy is in theater history."

To achieve the Victorian ambience called for in this production, Parrish relied on pastels for color and built what he calls a "large Victorian house on wheels" to allow for both interior and exterior scenes. He also spent time at Worthington's own Dayton House to get a feel for the period.

"The play is set in the 1890s, which is the same period as the Dayton House in architecture and style," observed Parrish, saying he took inspiration for the set from the Dayton House's curtains and décor. "The Dayton House was very helpful to me."

While Parrish says "The Importance of Being Earnest" is a great entertainment option for all ages, he cautions that children younger than age 12 might have some difficulty understanding the language-dense play. Still, it's a "wonderful chance to see what is often considered number one among the 10 greatest comedies of all time," urged Parrish.

And the students involved have learned much about Wilde, theater, language and more in the process.

"I'm still working on my British accent," admitted Falk a few days before opening night.

That's one thing Christopher Bah of Round Lake didn't have to practice; he has a non-speaking role as the footman.

Even so, Bah professed, "It's been a good experience."

"The Importance of Being Earnest" is staged at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Fine Arts Auditorium on the Worthington campus. There is an admission fee; general admission tickets are available at the door a half-hour prior to each show.