THEATER | The Guthrie’s randy take on “The Importance of Being Earnest”


“Look,” said my friend Annette, pointing upward. “There are more vaginas dropping.” Sure enough, the second act of the Guthrie Theater’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest was opening with the descent of several massive pink flowers apparently inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s infamously sexual botanic paintings, so explicitly vulvic that I wondered whether set designer Walt Spangler was consciously trying to outdo the scene in Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask) where Woody Allen is chased across a field by a house-size breast.

It’s a common strategy to add juice to Shakespeare revivals by playing up the libidinous innuendo, so it makes sense for director Joe Dowling to give it a shot with Wilde’s oft-produced classic, which is probably more familiar to most audiences than is any single Shakespeare play. There are hip-juts here and moans there, and when a character talks about the vibrations she gets from the name “Earnest,” even Smitten Kitten receipts falling out of her handbag couldn’t make her meaning any more clear. Appropriately, the whole thing takes place on the Wurtele Thrust, a stage with a name that sounds like something out of the Cosmo Sutra.

the importance of being earnest, presented through november 8 at the guthrie theater, 818 s. 2nd st., minneapolis. for tickets ($24-$60) and information, see

You have to imagine Wilde would get a kick out of it all, and obviously so did the audience I saw the production with on opening night: they laughed pretty much from the first moment to the last. As frequently seen as the play is, the script is so rich that every cast manages to find unplumbed depths of drollery to reward even the most multiply Earnest theatergoers.

The plot, which involves wealthy Victorian-era Londoners, is tethered to two of the most reliable workhorses in the comedic stable: mistaken identity and the battle of the sexes. Jack (Nick Mennell) wants to marry Gwendolen (Heidi Armbruster), but must finesse the fact that she believes him to be “Earnest,” an identity he’s fabricated to escape the dull existence he leads at his country home. Meanwhile, Jack’s pal Algernon (John Skelley) assumes the identity of the fictional Earnest to make the acquaintance of Jack’s 18-year-old ward Cecily (Erin Krakow); when he falls hard for her, he too is trapped in a lie. Complications ensue. ‘Nuff said.

Dowling and his energetic cast know they have can’t-miss material, and they hit it like the E Street Band slamming into “Born to Run.” Sure enough, it works…but I missed the modesty and scale of the last Earnest staging I saw, an endearing production by Pendulum Theatre Company. There’s nothing really wrong with the Guthrie’s new Earnest, but there’s nothing really special about it, either. It burbles along like a pleasant brook without ever really hitting the rapids.

Though I’m glad I saw Dowling’s take on the play, I’m really looking forward to the next Earnest slated to bow in Minneapolis. Fringe Festival PR director Matthew Foster’s new collective Theatre Arlo is committed to spending less on sets than the cost of a single top-priced ticket for the Guthrie’s production, and promises to tell the story “as it was meant to be told: really, really, extremely gay.”

Jay Gabler ( is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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