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SERIOUS COMEDY

Hall and Redgrave channel Oscar Wilde with new ’Earnest’

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For Sir Peter Hall, who directs Oscar Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest" - starring Lynn Redgrave - at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre this month, shepherding a new production of a century-old play - even a masterpiece like Wilde’s - is difficult.

"I think a director’s function, when working on a classic play from the past, is roughly this: to try to understand as much as possible of the society which supported the play originally and which bred its author," Sir Peter observes via e-mail from London. "The author’s intentions have, to the director’s best ability, to be found out and observed."

But director Hall also knows the realities of live theater: embalming classic plays as mere museum pieces does a disservice to both playwright and audience.

"No play speaks for itself and no play can be done as an antique," he explains. "It has to become a living thing where the director tries to express the author’s original intentions in terms which are modern enough for a contemporary audience to understand. But to make it ’fresh’ and ’new’ by distorting it is no help either."

When it comes to Wilde’s wonderfully witty play - which centers on two young men who have invented, respectively, a brother and a pseudonym both named Ernest to help spice up their rather boring lives - a first-rate production with superb actors will by itself keep the play fresh and new, with no further spicing up needed.

Sir Peter already knows, having staged Wilde before, that his scripts are constantly reinvigorated because they belie their clever surfaces.

"Years ago, I directed Wilde’s play ’An Ideal Husband’ and discovered something absolutely basic," he says. "All Wilde’s characters are extravagantly emotional and are naturally egocentric. But they do not show their feelings: that would be fundamentally un-English, so they utter witticisms instead.

"The more emotional they become, the more they cover their feelings with extravagant wit. It is a type of English stiff-upper-lip, and it informs all of Wilde’s theatre. Beneath the wit, there is always an intense emotional reality. And if the actor doesn’t create it every night, then the play may look unserious, even facetious."

That’s definitely not the case in Hall’s "Earnest" production, which features British theater stalwarts like Miriam Margolyes, Terence Rigby, James Waterston, Bianca Amato and Charlotte Parry, in addition to Redgrave.

"The reason why Miss Redgrave is my ideal choice is because she has such strength and clarity," he says. "She knows what a very serious business comedy is and she understands the power of Lady Bracknell’s obsessions. It is the marriage market which obsesses her: she wants to have her daughter married well and that means money."

That, to be sure, is an underlying theme of the play.

"There is a very serious social purpose underneath the high comedy," says Hall. "These are people who have little to do except to assert their position in society, maintain their capital, and don’t soil their hands with any work. [Wilde’s] original audience must indeed have been made to look at itself."

The playwright subtitled his immortal work as "a trivial comedy for serious people," which the director finds vintage Wilde. "[It is], in my view, Wilde throwing down a challenge to his audience," Hall explains. "I’m perfectly sure he didn’t regard his comedy as ’trivial.’ I’m equally sure he didn’t think of the audience as ’serious.’"

Hall’s production of Wilde’s classic comes to the BAM Harvey Theater, April 18 through May 14, on the heels of his staging of Shakespeare’s "As You Like It," starring daughter Rebecca Hall, which played in the fall of 2004.

"I love the Harvey Theatre," Hall gushes. "It has a large auditorium, and yet, it retains its intimacy - the energy therefore that the actors receive from the audience is very strong. I shall also look forward again to having the cushion seats [on the floor] in the front of the auditorium as I did when I brought ’As You Like It.’"

Even though Wilde is infamous for his epigrams and witticism - whether uttered by himself or the characters in his plays - Hall sees him as part of a lineage connecting several great English-language dramatists.

"[Playwrights like Wilde, Harold Pinter, Peter Schaffer and Noel Coward, all of whom Hall has staged] have very individual voices expressing very different styles," he explains. "Wilde said famously, ’Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.’ All these great dramatists have masks, which has to do with the rhythm of their sentences, and they are all completely their own.

"In Wilde, if you say the line as a whole - going all the way to the full-stop, you get the laugh. But if you break it up or chop it up in the interests of ’realism,’ the laugh doesn’t come," he continues. "All these dramatists live in words, and they have vocabularies and rhythms which are as particular as Shakespeare’s."

That’s the highest praise a playwright can receive.

"The Importance of Being Earnest," directed by Peter Hall, will be performed at the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place in Fort Greene, April 18 through May 14. Tickets are $85, $75, $50 and $30. For more information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.

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