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'Earnest' play comes to Bemidji

MONTE DRAPER \ BEMIDJI PIONEER (From left) Actors Amanda Mix, Matt Ayers, Sasha Almendinger, Joel Ward and Kristine Cannon rehearse a scene from the play "The Importance of Being Earnest" written by Oscar Wilde. The play, directed by Jesse Whiting, will be shown on the main stage of the Bangsberg Fine and Performing Arts Complex at Bemidji State University.

BEMIDJI -- Although school children in the Bemidji School District know Jesse Whiting as a substitute teacher, his friends in the arts community know him as a gifted young actor and political activist.

And that's why the Bemidji Community Theater board decided to help mentor the young actor to directing a well-respected literary play his own way, "The Importance of Being Earnest."

Whiting, who was last seen in "Arsenic and Old Lace," another studio works presented by BCT, thought it would be fun to stage a comedy penned with bon mots to spare as well as political satire.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, presented to audiences across the globe for the past 118 years, cost Wilde his literary career when it closed at the St. James Theater in London after only a mere 86 performances. Satire, even then, was a difficult vehicle to utilize because many of those one wished to "poke fun at" were the same literati an author would have wanted to reach and be financially supported by. "Earnest" in itself is a play on words; it refers to being serious and honest but exposes the duplicity of Victorian manners that were anything but earnest for the young men of the time. Young men were entitled to "play the field" and the young women fell victim to their "playing."

And that inconsistency is the focus of Whiting's staging of this production, for he hopes to bring a freshness in switching the gender roles of the characters. Or as Whiting wrote in his program notes: "As characters cross the gender line, characteristics evolve with them; what was once haughty in a woman is now cruel in a man. Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves what this suggests to us about our modern standards of gender norms and expectations."

Another BCT actor who has been seen in plays as recently as Cecco the pirate in "Peter Pan," jumped at the chance to be production manager and Dr. Chasuble, the local vicar in the very proper Church of England. Kristine Cannon, a semi-retired Bemidji lawyer, is known for her behind-the-scenes magic in makeup design. Her innovative theatrical exploits like the fairy wings made by the cast and crew and sold during "Peter Pan" netted more than $1,000 for children's hospitals in Minnesota.

"I was delighted to be asked to be production manager for Whiting's debut as a director in Bemidji," Cannon said, "because I truly enjoy the backstage details and firmly believe that they add to Chasuble in that a 'he' is being played by a 'she' and it gives me insight into gender roles and expectations."

Cannon is just one of a number of BCT people who urged Whiting to appeal to the entire board for funding and mentoring in this initial production of The Exciting Play Society. This first studio works project of BCT was the successful summer camp for youngsters who aspire to "do theater." Underwritten by the Region 2 Arts Council, the summer camp offered two weeks of classes and final performances at Bangsberg Fine and Performing Arts Complex at Bemidji State University. Because of the underwriting of the camp, the tuition was minimal ($50) for two weeks with theater and teaching professionals.

"When Whiting came to us with his idea, the board overwhelmingly approved the venture, which has a budget of $2,000 and a far cry from the $12,000 to $15,000 that BCT spends on the big musicals like 'Peter Pan' and 'Oliver,'" said board president Ernie Rall, who added that BCT board member Julie Kaiser is the stage manager for the production, and Derrick Houle is a cast member.

In keeping with its mission statement "to provide an opportunity for people to pursue their interests in theater through acting and stagecraft support activities, in productions by and for community members," the BCT implemented the Studio Works system to help mentor people who want to gain experience in the various aspects of theater, officials said.


What: "The Importance of Being Earnest," a satirical comedy by Oscar Wilde acted by the Exciting Play Society, underwritten by Bemidji Community Theater.

Times: 7:30 p.m. , Aug. 16, 17, 23 and 24; 2 p.m. Aug 18.

Location: Main Stage of Bangsberg Fine and Performing Arts Complex, 14th St. and Birchmont Drive N, Bemidji.

Tickets: $10 for adults, $5 for students 17 and younger at the door 45 minutes before curtain time. Tickets available at Iverson's Corner Drug and Shannon's Art and Soul in downtown Bemidji and K.K. Thompson at the Paul Bunyan Mall.