Jeanne Olsen loves Oscar Wilde for “his grasp of language, his grasp of wit and his wordplay.”
All of that will be on stage at Tremper High School starting tonight, where Olsen is directing Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
This is her first show at Kenosha Unified, though Olsen has directed shows for Christian Youth Theatre.
“I’ve also done Summer Shakespeare with Lakeside Players,” said Olsen, a KUSD substitute teacher.
Though “Earnest” was written more than 100 years ago, Olsen said the students “do understand most of the play. I did have to explain some of the jokes to them, but the script is so solid and so funny.”
Part of rehearsing the show, Olsen said, involves learning about Victorian social norms.
“We work with the students, talking about how people in that era would sit in a chair and how they hold their hands,” said Olsen.
She credits assistant director Rachel Proite with helping research the era.
“She’s a Carthage student, a theater education major, and currently (theater teacher) Nic Cicerale’s student teacher at Tremper,” Olsen said. “She has been a big help, especially with accents and Victorian postures and mannerisms.”
“Earnest” is famous for its witty dialogue, and Olsen said the show has been a joy to work on with the students.
A huge appeal, she said, is Wilde’s command of language.
“In today’s society,” she said, “we’re getting sloppier about our language. In this play, his use of vocabulary and surprising word choices make you laugh. It’s kind of novel to use language this way, and there’s a lot of subtle humor in the show.”
When “Earnest” debuted in London, theater critics complained it wasn’t serious enough and didn’t tackle important topics.
The show’s entire title, however — “The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People” — should have tipped them off that “this isn’t a show that takes itself seriously,” Olsen said.
“The Victorians took themselves very seriously, and maybe we do these days, too.
“This is a silly show that pokes fun at that.”
“Earnest,” she added, “has a basic farce plot of getting trapped in lies and lying more to get out of it. It’s part of a long tradition of farces.”
The show is set in 1895 and features “beautiful costumes and a set that has to work for indoor and outdoor scenes and two different locations,” Olsen said.
“It works very well.”
Olsen hopes the audience “will come away from the show with a new appreciation for the English language and an appreciation for the student actors.”
“Overall,” she added, “this has been a great experience.”