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Play embodies spirit of period British farce

If poster art for Phoenix Theatre's upcoming production of

"The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Sheldon Theatre looks eerily familiar -- you're probably a fan of "Downton Abbey."

Phoenix officials aren't shy about drawing the comparison between the two. They hope to attract audience members who love the critically acclaimed Sunday night PBS TV series and can appreciate the similarities between the two British period shows.

"Downton Abbey" begins in the early 1900s at a British country estate. "Earnest" is set a few years earlier in London and a British country estate.

"Abbey" has fascinating characters at all levels of the social hierarchy, including the aristocratic dowager countess of Grantham, played by actress Maggie Smith. "Earnest" has its own intriguing characters, including the controlling matriarch Lady Bracknell, played by Helene Olson-Reed in the Phoenix show.

Both productions capture the era visually, with vintage clothing and coiffures, mannerisms and stage settings.

The biggest difference is probably that "Downton Abbey" was conceived a few years ago as a period television drama, while "Earnest" was created by Oscar Wilde as a farcical comedy set in the 1890s -- the era in which it was written.

In addition to the overriding humor and silliness, "Earnest" also has an intriguing mystery involving a handbag and mistaken identity. The line from the play, "In a handbag? !" is one of the most famous lines spoken by the dowager.

Anyone new to the stage play will discover that to the characters, being "Ernest" is every bit as important as being "earnest" when it comes to love and marriage.

Phoenix members were inspired to capitalize on the "Downton Abbey" similarities because several are big fans of the TV series.

"I'm addicted to it," director Julie Martin said.

She also considers "The Importance of Being Earnest" one of those classic plays that everyone should experience.

It's Wilde's best-known comedy, Phoenix spokesman Marcy Watzl said, and his most enduringly popular play, praised for its witty dialogue.

Phoenix actors will stage "Earnest" April 4-7.

Two special events are planned to accommodate the audience that is expected to attend. In addition to the fee for adults, $20.50, and the charge for students, $13.50, Phoenix has added a special price for seniors 65 and older, $18.70. A reduced price is available for groups of 15 or more.

Opening night -- Thursday April 4 -- is Girls Night Out. Wine will be available for purchase during intermission.

Watzl pointed out that one of the characters in the play says women only call each other sister "after they've called each other a lot of other things first." The opportunity to get together at the Sheldon aims to put a more positive spin on women's relationships.

Martin noted that audience members will be allowed to bring their wine glasses into the theater if the second act begins before they're finished their beverage.

On April 7, during the final performance -- a 2 p.m. matinee -- complimentary tea will be served during intermission, courtesy of a local business.

For more about the show and its mysteries, people can use their cellphones on the QR code that is featured on posters, car magnets and advertisements. They also can contact the Sheldon Theatre.

It might not explain just why an old handbag is a red herring or a critical clue to solve the story's mystery, but Watzl said the experience is guaranteed to entertain.

"I love this play; it is so clever," she said. "There is nothing heavy about this play. It's just a fun evening, filled with lighthearted humor that will appeal to anyone who's hooked on the 'Downton Abbey' series."

If you go ...

What: "The Importance of Being Earnest"

Who: Phoenix Theatre

When: 7 p.m. April 4-6, 2 p.m. April 7

Where: Sheldon Theatre, 443 W. Third St.

How much: $20.50 adults, $18.70 seniors (65+), $13.50 students

More info: /651-388-8700, 800-899-5759,