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STAGE REVIEW

A Wilde and 'Earnest' Band of Merry Men in Santa Ana

January 29, 1998|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — A current catch-phrase in theater goes, "Let's try it and see if it works." That's what Hunger Artists Theatre Company does in its staging of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," with an all-male cast.

Numerous actors have played Lady Bracknell, including Ellis Rabb. Last year in Hollywood, an all-female cast did "Earnest." So why not all-male? There's no reason why not and good reasons why.

Director Kelly Flynn sets Wilde's outrageous comedy in the 1960s, rather than the relatively rigid 1890s. The '60s, Flynn notes, were more congenial to the ambiguous nature of the relationships in the play. The updating and casting give Wilde's work an entirely different tone. His production looks like something by '60s British playwright Joe Orton.

Apart from the obvious innuendoes, campy costuming and Orton flavor, the staging emerges as a sound treatment, respectful of the text, with brisk timing and insight--a curious and delightful romp.

The wise decision not to have the actors playing Bracknell, Cecily and Gwendolyn in drag helps put across Flynn's message about the difference between the two eras. They're males living their own lifestyle.

Another wise decision is to avoid the usual mistake of aping the definitive Lady Bracknell--Dame Edith Evans. Flynn plays Bracknell as his own invention, and a worthy one. Russell Dunn's Jack Worthing might be a bit tense, but it fits. Dunn is effective, especially with best buddy Algernon, played with delicious ambiguity by Mark Coyan.

The funniest result of the casting is Sean Cox's Gwendolyn, a performance full of humor and delight. Trace Kirkpatrick's Cecily is not as strongly motivated as Cox's Gwendolyn but is nonetheless a good foil for Tom Hensley's Miss Prism, the evening's biggest departure, played as a Nazi tutor with a riding crop he enjoys using.

Eric B. Person, bowing to tradition, plays both valet Lane and country butler Merriman, and one forgives this actor wearing a French maid's dress as Lane, for he does have a huge handlebar mustache. The weakest link in Flynn's chain is Damon Hill's Canon Chasuble, a performance too heavy-footed to fit in with the rest.

BE THERE

"The Importance of Being Earnest," Hunger Artists Theatre Space, 204 E. 4th St., Santa Ana. Thursday-Sunday, 8:30. Ends Sunday. $10-$12. (714) 547-9100. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

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