Arts & Culture

Shakespeare festival learns ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

Gwendolen Fairfax (Madeleine Whalen), John Worthing (Tyler Lopez) and Cecily Cardew (Kristie Siebert-Lopez) star in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” playing July 14 through 30 as part of the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival.
Gwendolen Fairfax (Madeleine Whalen), John Worthing (Tyler Lopez) and Cecily Cardew (Kristie Siebert-Lopez) star in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” playing July 14 through 30 as part of the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival. Central Coast Shakespeare Festival

Two theatrical blockbusters — a star-crossed love story and a classic comedy of manners — are coming to the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival stage this summer.

The county’s only outdoor theater company will present William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” under the spreading oaks of the rustic Filipponi Ranch property on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo. The festival kicks off Thursday and runs through Aug. 6, with the plays being performed on alternating weeks.

First up is “The Importance of Being Earnest,” making its festival debut.

“The play is such a fun romp,” said director Cynthia Totten, who’s aided by directing intern Madeline Romero. “It’s a hybrid of a comedy of manners and a farce, and there’s a little bit of melodrama in there (as well).”

Set in England in 1895, the same year the play premiered, “The Importance of Being Earnest” begins with two seemingly innocent deceptions.

While in London, country dweller Jack Worthing (Tyler Lopez) masquerades as his ne’er-do-well brother, Ernest. Jack’s friend, Algernon Moncrieff (Cory Schonauer), meanwhile, regularly escapes to the country under the pretense of visiting an imaginary invalid, Bunbury.

When the women they’re wooing — Jack’s fiancée, Gwendolyn Fairfax (Madeline Whalen), and his ward, Cecily Cardew (Kristie Siebert-Lopez) — profess their fondness for the name Ernest, both men decide to rechristen themselves with the help of the rector, Dr. Chausable (Brandon Brooks).

Naturally, this leads to some confusion when the women learn they are both engaged to Ernest.

Kate Kravets plays Gwendolyn’s overbearing mother, Lady Bracknell, while Jacqueline Edwards is Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism. Charles Hayek doubles as the servants Lane and Merriman.

The plot of “The Importance of Being Earnest” is improbable, Totten acknowledged, but that’s all part of the fun.

“What Wilde does so brilliantly is he leads you down the garden path,” said the director, a theater professor at Eckerd College in Florida. “You think it’s going one direction and then at the last minute you go in another direction.”

Totten also praised the richness of the play’s language, noting that “Wilde delighted in wordplay just like Shakespeare did.”

“The Importance of Being Earnest” features sumptuous period-appropriate costumes by Roger Upton, sets by technical director Nathan Brown and choreography by Jason Sumabat. Dana Marie Miossi is the stage manager.

In contrast to Totten’s traditional take on “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Romeo and Juliet” director Chris Forrer said he wanted to emphasize the contemporary nature of Shakespeare’s tragedy by setting it in modern-day Verona, Italy. (The production also tweaks the genders of a couple characters.)

“The most important thing about any play — and Shakespeare is no exception — is to know what your story is and focus on telling it,” said Forrer, who wrapped up two years as a directing intern at PCPA-Pacific Conservatory Theatre in Santa Maria in 2015.

“Two soul mates meet and want to make decisions” in spite of the fact that they belong to feuding families, he explained. “They’re aware of (the situation), but it’s not as important as being with the other half of their heart, of their soul.”

Persuaded by his friends Mercutio (Galen Schloming) and Benvolia (Daphne Dossett) to attend a ball held by the Capulets, Romeo (Garrett Gibbs) meets and falls in love with Juliet (Michaela Ferroggiaro) — enraging Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (Hannah Wade), who is incensed that a Montague crashed the party.

Romeo and Juliet defy their disapproving parents — Lord Capulet (Phil Edwards), Lady Capulet (Jacqueline Edwards) and Lady Montague (Kravets) — and are married secretly by Sister Lauren (Rosh Wright). But their bliss is short-lived when Romeo accidentally kills Tybalt.

The cast includes Robin Wolf as Juliet’s Nurse and Bob Knowles as Prince Escalus. Chelsea Garcia, Ashur Gharavi, Kelsea Johnson, Bobby Kiner, Krystal Kirk, Jon Mounts, Cody Schmidt, Vivian Vaeth and Johnny Valero complete the ensemble.

“Romeo and Juliet” features sets by Brown, choreography by Sumabat, music direction by Jacqueline Edwards and vocal arrangements by Gibbs. Audrey Surprenant serves as stage manager with the help of production assistant Katherine Breyman.

According to Forrer, the play deals with issues that will resonate with modern audiences — such as the lack of communication between parents and children. “Young people choosing the path of violence and physical superiority to advance themselves” is another prevailing theme, said the director, who handles stage combat with Matt Hanson.

But Forrer said, “We’re not dealing with noblemen with swords on their belts. We’re dealing with gangs.”

With this season, the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival celebrates its third year at Filipponi Ranch. Artistic director Zoe Saba said the festival is still searching for a permanent home, however.

Central Coast Shakespeare Festival

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 6 p.m. Sunday; through Aug. 6

Filipponi Ranch, 1850 Calle Joaquin Road, San Luis Obispo

$20, $18 seniors and students, $12 children 12 and under