Stanford Summer Theater Festival presents works by two great Irish dramatists and funnymen, Wilde and Beckett

"The Importance of Being Earnest" and "Happy Days" represent comedy with a difference.

Lynne Soffer knows what she likes when she sees it. Earlier this month, she was tinkering with the blocking of the third act of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and her directorial instincts were swiftly shaping the action on stage. The actors’ every step, gesture and inflection were quickly weighed and tweaked to her liking as the revelatory drawing room scene moved forward. Even the furniture and props were getting direction – the chair moves 2 inches here, the handbag rests just there, the books get dropped just so. You could see Soffer’s vision for the final act crystallize.

Soffer sees Wilde, a champion of the British Aesthetic Movement, as a master at creating a landscape of style, wit and beauty with characters who believe living is an art form that must be elevated to a graceful perfection.

“We’ve had both a challenge and a joy in trying to find how to breathe life into the fabulous people of this play as they dance together across that landscape of ideas and conceits,” she said. “These characters love the twists and turns of flipping ideas on their heads as they find love in each other’s arms.”

The goal of the play, according to Soffer: “To end up tickling both your funny bone and your mind.”

The product of weeks of rehearsal and refinement includes ironic wit and wordplay, stylish sets and costumes nodding faithfully to the fashions of Wilde’s day, and an exploration of Victorian manners and society. The play runs through Aug. 11, Thursdays through Sundays, at Pigott Theater.

Wilde’s ensemble play is followed by Samuel Beckett’s absurdly funny and sparse Happy Days, Aug. 15-25, with Don DeMico and Courtney Walsh as husband and wife Willie and Winnie, and Rush Rehm directing. Both productions are part of Stanford Summer Theater’s 15th season celebrating comedy.

Complementing the two stage productions is an all-day community symposium on Wilde and Beckett, an ongoing Stanford Continuing Studies summer course titled Wilde, Beckett and the Split Visions of Comedy and a free Monday night film series on “apocalyptic comedy.”

SST’s symposia are lively affairs, where we emphasize the exchange among scholars, artists and audience.

“SST offers a total package, so that our audiences can delight in the plays and films, while delving more deeply into the material and enhancing their own experience,” said Rehm, artistic director of Stanford Summer Theater. “The theater has a way of crystallizing a myriad of different elements, and in the case of our two great playwrights this summer, that crystallization delivers extraordinary humor and surprising insight.”

 He’s funny that way

The total package that Rehm refers to includes the opportunity to explore the festival theme beyond stage and screen presentations at an all-day symposium titled He’s Funny That Way: Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. On Aug. 3 beginning at 9:30 a.m., lecturers, performers and community come together to closely examine the two Irish playwrights and their radically different approaches to comedy.

Charles Junkerman, dean of Continuing Studies and associate provost, will deliver the keynote address. Other lecturers include William Eddelman and Alice Rayner (both emeriti in the Department of Theater and Performance Studies), Petra Dierkes-Thrun (lecturer, English Department), Rehm and guest artists Soffer, Courtney Walsh and Brendon Martin.

“SST’s symposia are lively affairs, where we emphasize the exchange among scholars, artists and audience,” Rehm said. “They prove to be the culminating experience of our summer festival.”

In addition to staged scenes from the plays of Wilde and Beckett performed by the SST company, Geoff Hoyle, whose previous work with SST includes Waiting for Godot, The ChairsLysistrata and Translations, will perform parts of his one-man show Geezer.

Tickets are $90 each and include morning coffee and pastries, catered lunch and afternoon tea. Advance registration is required.

 Apocalyptic comedy on screen

The free Monday night film series, Apocalyptic Comedy, already underway, focuses on the comic potential in even the most desperate of situations. Stanford faculty and SST company members introduce each film. Screenings are at 7 p.m. in Annenberg Auditorium. The remaining schedule follows:

July 29: Catch-22 (Nichols); introduced by Rush Rehm, artistic director, SST

Aug. 5: The Great Dictator (Chaplin); Adrian Daub, assistant professor of German studies

Aug. 12: In Bruges (McDonagh); Tobias Wolff, professor of English

Aug. 19: Seven Beauties (Wertmüller); Inga Pierson, doctoral candidate in French and Italian