Review On Theater: An earnestly Wilde role reversal

What happens when roles in a play traditionally performed by men are assigned to women and vice versa? You can learn the answer at Costa Mesa’s Vanguard University, where Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is enjoying a thoroughly wacky revival.

It’s the imaginative concept of director Susan K. Berkompas, whose gender-bending strategy works so well primarily because of playgoers’ familiarity with the original characters and their peculiarities. It’s still Wilde’s acid-tipped dialogue that accomplishes most of the heavy lifting.

Simply put, two young Victorian-era ladies (now “Algy” and “Jackie”) conduct their romantic pursuits of “Gwyn” and “Cecil” while each claims her first name is Earnest — a handle richly favored by both young men, and a deal-breaker in affairs of the heart.

Both Alexis Stary (Algy) and Marissa Del Gatto (Jackie) are quite engaging in their chicanery — especially when they meet unexpectedly while performing under their assumed names. Gregory Spradling (Gwyn) and Zachary Guevin (Cecil) come off a little less comfortable, but they prove effective nonetheless.

The show stopper in this revival is Lady Bracknell, a dowager noblewoman who seems to wield absolute power over both entanglements. Andreas Schmidt, a towering dude in full drag, takes on this character in high dudgeon, “her” monstrous growl reducing others to jelly.

Two supporting characters retain their original identities. Zoe Zamora cringes delightfully as the introverted governess Miss Prism, and Parker Simmons offers a properly bland Reverend Chasuble. Bethany Huang nicely renders Asian male and female servants.

The unseen, and long deceased, star of the show is playwright Wilde, who once declared to a customs agent, “I have nothing to declare but my greatness.” His constant jabs at the English manners and mores of the 1890s still sting with uncanny accuracy.

Set designer Paul Eggington has fashioned two free-standing backdrops that blend splendidly into the play’s Victorian flavor. The costumes — especially those of the two leading ladies and Lady Bracknell — are striking overstatements of the fashion of the period.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” has been around for well over a century, but there are still joys to be found, especially when gender assignments are tampered with, as they are so splendidly at Vanguard University.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.

*

IF YOU GO

What: “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Where: Vanguard University’s Lyceum Theater, 55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Closing performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and matinees at 2 p.m. Sunday, Saturday and March 5.

Cost: $13 to $15

Information: (714) 668-6145