Sarah Fallon, left, and Jessica AustgenĀ 

Photo by Tom Kimell - Theatreworks

"The Importance of Being Earnest"

Oscar Wilde said the secret to remaining young was to have an inordinate passion for pleasure.

The same might be said for successfully staging his masterpiece, "The Importance of Being Earnest." Instead, nearly every attempt is a travesty because one reverential director after another forgets that Wilde's scathing satire of Victorian aristocracy is, after all, a comedy. A nearly perfect comedy with more zingers than any Will Ferrell movie.

In comedy (then and now), reverence plus caution equals dullness.

If anyone gets that, it's TheatreWorks' Murray Ross, the venerable impresario of Colorado Springs whose pleasant new staging is neither as unbridled as it could be nor particularly groundbreaking - but clearly out for a laugh.

Ross' team creates a brilliant visual banquet to go with the bouquet of language. His circular set is adorned with blossoms, the stage floor etched with flowers; his women are dressed in a garden of colorful gowns. We could be inside a Georgia O'Keeffe painting.

As for the play, Wilde's words carry the day. That's a smart if not altogether surprising strategy. The only real surprise - besides the lack of English accents - may not have been intentional. It's that his four female actors are so imperial, they reduce the tale's two main fellas to an afterthought.

Seriously: Ask anyone what "Earnest" is about, and they'll surely tell you it's about two men - not named Earnest - who lay claim to the name to win over two flighty young women who insist on only marrying men of that moniker.

But I suspect that if you polled anyone leaving TheatreWorks' staging, they'll rather say this is the story of two empirical and beguiling women of wealth and leisure who control the patriarchal society they occupy, despite leading utterly silly lives. Gwendolyn and Cecily are written as charming devices for Wilde's mockery. They adhere to frivolous codes of principles that determine the value of a man by his identity rather than by his being.

But they become fully fleshed in Sarah Fallon (Gwendolyn) and Jessica Austgen (Cecily), two Shakespearean-trained ringers. Add rock-solid vets in the supreme Ashley Crockett as the acid-tongued Lady "Battleship" Bracknell, and Jane Fromme as the endearingly repressed Miss Prism, and poor Jack (Andrew Schmidt) and Algernon (Chad Siebert) don't stand a chance.

That may be attributable to evident disparities in technique and experience, but these men find themselves on the wrong end of a wide gender gap. They are particularly shaky in a first act that could frankly use less earnestness in our Earnests. A tennis analogy: The boys lob. The girls smash forehands. The guys loosen up as the play progresses (particularly Algy), but they don't yet have the comic confidence that would ensure a level playing field.

Crockett infuses every line with barbed wit ("To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness"). Cecily and Gwendolyn square off in a tea scene laced not with sugar but sublimely antagonistic civility.

As wonderful as these women are, the show's star is Wilde himself. He has placed in every actor a license to be silly, arming them with rapid-fire fusillades of splendid witticisms. I mean, the whole thing comes down to a woman's having absentmindedly placed a baby in a handbag instead of a carriage. The play's great revelation? Our hero's realization - to his chagrin - that for lo these many years, he has actually been telling the truth. C'mon, that's silly!

"The Importance of Being Earnest" only becomes a museum piece if you are afraid to have fun with it. At TheatreWorks, they are having a ball.

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