Rice U. Theatre Program livestreaming one-night-only production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

Actors will wear masks for Oct. 9 play broadcast from Hamman Hall

The new manners of social distancing and wearing masks have been incorporated into Oscar Wilde’s classic Victorian satirical comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest,” as the Rice University Theatre Program presents its fall play amid a pandemic.

The production will be broadcast live from Hamman Hall at 8 p.m. Oct. 9 via Rice’s YouTube channel. Actors will wear masks on stage for the one-night-only play and physical distancing rules will keep them 6 feet apart at all times.

For actor Matthew Alter, who plays John “Jack” Worthing, these are hardly restrictions. In fact, the Wiess College freshman is a remote student this semester; rehearsals for the show have been the only time he’s left his Houston home the past few months.

“It’s the only thing that has gotten me out of the house and I’m grateful for that,” said Alter, who’s double majoring in visual and dramatic arts (VADA) and computer science.

“Earnest” follows the story of two bachelors, Worthing and Algernon “Algy” Moncrieff, who create alter egos named Ernest to escape their tiresome lives. They attempt to win the hearts of two women who, conveniently, claim to only love men called Ernest. The pair struggle to keep up with their own stories and become tangled in a tale of deception, disguise and misadventure.

The Victorian setting, said actor Elise Gibney, also mirrors in some ways the physical restraints imposed by the pandemic.

“We’ve sort of stopped noticing the masks, and it sort of works in the Victorian — beginning of Edwardian — setting where in public situations, you wouldn’t be leaping into the arms of your one true love,” said Gibney, a Wiess College senior majoring in electrical engineering.

“It’s all very restrained and you would be sitting up very straight and possibly keeping some distance — probably not quite as much distance,” said Gibney, who plays Gwendolen Fairfax.

Matthew Alter and Elise Gibney play, respectively, John "Jack" Worthing and Gwendolyn Fairfax. (Photo by Alan D. Kim)

Matthew Alter and Elise Gibney play, respectively, John “Jack” Worthing and Gwendolyn Fairfax. (Photo by Alan D. Kim)

The production will be directed by Christina Keefe, head of the Rice Theatre Program, assisted by VADA alumnus Alan Kim ‘19. Keefe recently directed Rice’s productions of “As You Like It” and “She Kills Monsters.”

Kim double majored in VADA and English, portraying Picasso in Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and Brutus in “Julius Caesar” while at Rice. He has since appeared as a supernumerary in Houston Grand Opera productions of “Rigoletto” and “Aida” and as Robert in Soo-Jin Lee’s “Peaches,” produced for Mildred’s Umbrella Theatre Co.’s Femfest: Voices of Asia.

Together, Keefe said, they’re all working to keep each other safe during rehearsals, a task that’s been made easier by Rice’s continual, mandatory COVID-19 testing across campus.

“Quite honestly if it wasn’t for the fact that Rice (was) so aware and really working hard to keep all of us safe — the fact that I get tested every week, that my students get tested every week, that my students are so smart and they’re very aware” — the show would probably not, as they say, go on, she said.

“I think it’s really important we keep theater alive,” Keefe said.

Her students agree.

“It’s been a fantastic experience,” Gibney said. “I’m very happy that I’ve gotten to do it.”

Alter also pointed to the fact that they’re participating in something heretofore unseen on a university stage.

“It’s a moment in history that probably hasn’t happened before — and I hope doesn’t happen later,” Alter said.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.