Importance of Being Earnest

The importance of being Earnestine

Artists Rep's all-woman cast of "Earnest" rides the currents of Oscar Wilde's arch comedy without rippling the gender waves

“A little sincerity is a dangerous thing,” the painted lettering at the edge of the stage in Artists Repertory Theatre’s spritzy new production of The Importance of Being Earnest reads, “and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

The quote gets to the heart of Oscar Wilde’s enduring appeal: his wit, his archness, his talent to titillate, his sly defiance of received morality and social conventions, his eager embrace of artificiality as the sane person’s antidote to the grinding boredom of the merely real. Earnest was a smash when it opened in London in 1895, and it also led indirectly to Wilde’s conviction for gross indecency (code words for “homosexual acts”) and two years of hard labor in Reading Gaol, a scandal that did much to assure his place in history and also largely ruined his life. In a 21st century culture far less cloistered than late Victorian England’s the play no longer really shocks, if it ever truly did. But it continues to be enormously popular for its brilliant structure and bubbling wit.

Woman power, from left: Rhodes, Alper, Muñoz, Berkshire. Photo: David Kinder

Or is our current culture less cloistered? In another dimension Artists Rep might’ve called this production, which features an all-female cast, The Importance of Being Earnestine. And in light of the Edward Albee estate’s recent case of the heebie-jeebies over Portland producer Michael Streeter’s proposal to cast a black actor, Damien Geter, as Nick in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (the estate denied production rights unless the role was recast with a white actor, which Streeter refused to do), an all-woman Earnest might seem fraught with cultural implications heavier than the play can bear. But Earnest isn’t Virginia, and Wilde isn’t the Albee estate, and the artistic culture, if not always the political one, has largely moved on from controversies that once seemed to matter very much. Although Algernon, Jack, Reverend Chasuble, both manservants, and every interpolation of the elusive Ernest are played at Artists Rep by women actors, the show doesn’t come off as Gender-bender Earnest or any other sort of a “statement” production. On the contrary, it’s very straightforward and traditional-feeling: Just do the play and let it bubble along, working its magic. Director Michael Mendelson hasn’t changed a word in the script, at least as far as I could tell, and he’s given the show a fluid buoyancy, an almost musical flow, that allows the play’s caprices to slide easily forward and carry the audience mostly happily with them.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Really big show

Going big: Perséphone with puppets, an American in Paris, Mahler's grand sweep, the sounds of Cuba and Lou Harrison

At the Portland Showtime Bistro, audiences like things well-done, but often served small to medium. We enjoy our intimacy, from compact ensembles like Portland Baroque Orchestra and FearNoMusic to closeup theater spaces like CoHo, the Back Door, the Ellyn Bye Studio, Shoebox, and Shaking the Tree. Summer’s coming, and with it, once again, that sprawling celebration of good things in small packages, the Chamber Music Northwest summer festival (with a welcome emphasis this year on women composers).

But sometimes you want the whole darned smorgasbord, and only big will do. Portland can provide that, too, and lately it’s been doing so … well, big-time.

Big night on the town: Portland Opera’s “La Bohème.” Photo: Cory Weaver.

Portland Opera’s just completed its grand-scale production of Puccini’s overflowing romantic potboiler La Bohème (Terry Ross reviewed it for ArtsWatch here) and is saddling up for a June musical-theater adventure in giant-windmill territory with Man of La Mancha (featuring Grimm star Reggie Lee as one of the best sidekicks in history, Sancho Panza).

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