IF YOU GO
What: Oscar Wilde satire about Victorian socialites leading double lives - and the trouble they get into
When: 8 p.m. through Saturday, March e. Additional 3 p.m. matinée showings on Feb. 16 & 17; Feb. 20 and March 2 & 3.
Where: Norris Community Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples
Cost: $33-$45, $15 for students
Information: 866-811-4111 or gulfshoreplayhouse.org
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
NAPLES — Claire Brownell dances across the stage in the Norris Community Center in downtown Naples.
"What if I hold my hand out during this bit?" she asks. "Like I'm waiting for him to take it?"
Brownell, actor William Connell and Gulfshore Playhouse founder Kristen Coury are delighting in finding the funniest angles in Act One of "The Importance of Being Earnest."
"Gorgeous period costumes, engaging wit, hilarious situations," Coury ticks off a list of the show's attractions. "What more could a theatre-goer ask for?"
THE IMPORTANCE OF CUCUMBER SANDWICHES
The show mixes a double set of mixed-up identities, a stolen baby, a hysterical nurse and an ultra-polite English ladylike manners catfight. Add serving tray, corsets, sleek top hats, elegant walking sticks, and hipster Victorian butlers in waxed mustaches. Did we mention cucumber sandwiches? Shame. Must not forget those.
Oscar Wilde penned the words that slice apart pretensions of the English drawing room and country house set. Gulfshore Playhouse will bring them to lush life today through March 3.
With "Earnest" and its theme of double identities, directors embrace the idea that most every line in the show has at least two or even three meanings. The slightest glances, shifts of movement or changes in tone can take on worlds of meaning.
Coury and her cast are demonstrating that art on stage. Gwendolen Fairfax (Brownell) snatches a moment alone with beau Ernest Worthing (Connell). The seduction grows saucier by the second.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EMOTIONAL TRUTH
Coury insists on one thing though - that her cast understand the emotional truth behind the scene, what the characters are really feeling - before they begin to layer in the silly bits.
"Here's the thing. No comedy is funny without truth," Coury said. "Jeannie has to believe she turned her Master into a dog, Lucy has to believe she has to wrap those chocolates going by on the conveyer belt."
Coury wants her actors to believe in their characters as much as a candy-stuffed Lucille Ball. Then, like Lucy and Ethel with the bulging cheeks at Kramer's Kandy Kitchen, the fun truly begins.
Brownell returns to Gulfshore Playhouse after playing Blanche DuBois in spring blockbuster "A Streetcar Named Desire."
The carefree actress arrived to rehearsal bearing the spoils of a care package from home. Brownell passed out authentic Montana fruit leather before ditching her shorts and cowboy boots for a corset, floor-length gown and button-up shoes.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING HONEST
Gwendolen and Ernest drift back and forth across the parlor.
Gwendolen. Pray don't talk to me about the weather, Mr. Worthing. Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me so nervous.
Jack. I do mean something else.
"Their feeling is the same as our feelings in our day and age," Coury told her actors, "but they had to live within all these strictures."
The scene continues again and again as the actors experiment with different ways of timing the dialogue, breathing, holding their hands or even taking steps. Coury stops and starts the scene often; Connell (think a taller, slightly more brooding Adam Scott from "Parks & Recreation") and Brownell offer suggestions to her and to each other.
Coury has a "general sense" of where the scene should go, but views her actors as "designers who bring their artistry to the process."
"It is imperative they help create [the play]," Coury said, "… or what results on stage is wooden, untruthful and thoroughly unenjoyable."
Back on stage, Coury stops the scene again to work on a moment during Gwendolen's confession that she would accept a proposal.
"I'd like to lure him in by confessing myself," Brownell volunteers from the stage.
The scene restarts and the actors continue to refine. When Brownell gets to a portion of dialogue where she keeps repeating the name "Jack," she keeps making outrageous faces and a different accent for each one. Then, she begins to trill the word "vibrations."
Gwendolen. Jack? . . . No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations.
Giggles ripple out through the Gulfshore Playhouse staff and crew watching the rehearsal.
THE IMPORTANCE OF GOOD CASTING
Shows like "Earnest" usually require an actor to have imagination and a quick wit. Coury doesn't have a magic formula for casting; Gulfshore occasionally casts locals, but hires mostly Equity professional actors out of New York.
"Whenever I cast any show I'm looking for the absolutely best, most talented and facile actor I can find," Coury said. "But the goal is always perfection."
Audiences will love the casting in "Earnest."
A.J. Shively comes to Naples after performing on Broadway in "Brigadoon" and "La Cage Aux Folles." Think hipster Victorian. Think Algernon Moncrief, via Williamsburg.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CIGARETTE CASE
On stage, Connell is repeatedly grabbing for a cigarette case the mustachioed Shiveley's Algernon Moncrief keeps snatching away at the last instant. Said case contains incriminating - extremely incriminating - evidence of Ernest Worthing's misdeeds.
The pair smile, Shively pops his collar again to imitate his Victorian costume, then they get set for the scene.
Algernon: Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn't. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read.
Connell and Shively go through the scene again and again, almost like fight training. Then, there's a squeal and an "Ahhhhhh." Coury leaps out of her chair and jumps up and down in sheer delight like a child at Christmas as the pair manage to time the exchange just right, words to grabs, emphasis to grunt.
"The more we work at that, the funnier it is," Coury told Connell and Shively.
Before the morning is over, Coury has worked through the entire scene what seems like a dozen times. She advises Shively to "move in for the kill" as Algernon closes in on Ernest.
With that, the snappy confrontation between the two men rises to a close and ends with an aggressive "CLICK!" right in Connell's face. With that, Shively dusts off his tails and perches in a chair. Elegance.
THE IMPORTANCE OF STYLE
Coury introduces the term "precision of movement" into our conversation. She explains it as a pristine quality to the text and the style that needs the correct handling.
"Sometimes if an actor even flinches or moves slightly while saying a line, it deflates the moment," Coury said.
To guard against that, and give the show the delightful saucy tilt she wants, Coury prepared specific blocking for "Earnest," with notes on individual phrases like "Turn your head then, raise your eyebrows then."
"You can only do that with a talented bunch of professionals who are completely invested in their world," Coury said.
These guys are already invested in "Earnest." And did we mention that aged matriarch Lady Bracknell was being played by a man? Wait till you hear Nick Ullett bellow pronouncements and bang his walking stick on the floor!