It started with a fight.
Last summer at the Kentucky Classical Theatre Conservatory, fight director Henry Layton choreographed a fight to a scene from the Oscar Wilde classic The Importance of Being Earnest.
"It was really exciting to everyone involved, and they had some idea how they could mount that show and turn it into something else," director Spencer Christensen said.
It turned into something else entirely. Exhausting action is at the center of The Impersonation of Being Ernest. But it is also a big pop culture commentary, combining Wilde's words with James Bond's sensibility, spiked with lyrics from Ke$ha, videos from YouTube, and references to Osama bin Laden and Charlie Sheen — all set in Orange County, Calif.
"We played on every sort of spoof that we can," Christensen said. "We're spoofing a lot. And because The Importance of Being Earnest is sort of a social commentary on Wilde's time, that's what we're doing. So we've got YouTube videos here left and right. ... It's very up to date. And then we've got sword fighting in the show and dancing. I mean you watch these people do this for 83 minutes and wonder, 'How do they survive it?'"
The show, which plays through Sunday at the Downtown Arts Center, is in part a recruitment tool for the conservatory, now renamed Kentucky Conservatory Theatre.
"Trish wanted to mount a show to really showcase the people who have worked in KCT, who have taught in it, who were in the program and have left it and are still working, and that was the idea," Christensen said, referring to KCT director Trish Clark.
They include Christensen, who helped create an early-education arm of the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, the event that preceded KCT's SummerFest as the July theater festival in The Arboretum. (He also will play Victor Frankenstein in SummerFest's production of Frankenstein.)
Other distinguished faculty and alumni include Ellie Clark, who starred in last summer's production of Pride and Prejudice and is an alumna of the apprentice program at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and Nick Vannoy, who played Collins in last summer's production of Rent and will play the creature in this summer's Frankenstein before heading off to the ATL apprentice program. Ernest also stars Layton, the event's longtime fight coordinator, and Jesse Hungerford, who played Romeo in SummerFest's age-appropriate production of Romeo & Juliet in 2007.
"It's done to showcase whatever their talent is, whatever their strength is," Christensen said. "As I started to know who was in this show, I started to write for them."
If the show sets a goal of creating physical comedy, rehearsals demonstrate what a high goal that is to reach. Before the final dress rehearsal, Christensen and his actors run and rerun scenes, trying to nail the timing on lines and actions for maximum comic effect.
"For a long time, I thought about writing sketch comedy, et cetera," Christensen said, "so there's a lot of that in here.
"When you create something like this, there are times that you ask, 'Am I pushing it too far?' But you have to trust your gut, and I feel like people will want to come because there's so much in there."