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.

Jamie M. Rea and Kailey Rhodes: the course of love runs earnestly. Photo: David Kinder

And why not? When the production opens to the wry eager comedy of Ayanna Berkshire’s portrayal of the privileged fop Algernon we notice, of course, that “he” is a “she,” but in a theatrical universe in which we’re used to seeing (for instance) black and brown nobles of medieval England in Shakespeare’s plays, and Prospera instead of Prospero, and Julia instead of Julius Caesar, it really hardly causes a ripple, because theatrical reality and actual reality are two separate things, a distinction of which Wilde was very much aware. The gender switch is there, but it stays largely in the background, allowing us to pay attention to the smooth playfulness of Berkshire’s performance. Similarly, Jamie M. Rea’s more rough-hewn approach to Algy’s friend Jack Worthing, the country gentleman who’s dreamed up a ne’er-do-well brother he calls Ernest to give him an excuse to travel regularly to the city, is manly, in an artificial, invented way (to which Wilde might respond that all social appearance, gender and otherwise, is artificial and invented).

This carries through to Sarah Lucht’s dual performance as the manservants Merriman and Lane (who offer a hint of P.G. Wodehouse’s longsuffering servants yet to come), and of JoAnn Johnson’s blustery, genial Reverend Chasuble, who carries a shyly lustful torch for the eccentric governess Miss Prism (a rumpled and coy and tightly funny Vana O’Brien), whose revelation of her deep dark secret brings the play’s whole whimsical house of cards tumbling down and into a surprising resolution that makes light fun of the scrambled happy endings of Restoration comedy. The audience is aware, of course, that some of the “men” are actually women – the vocal timbres are different, and no amount of costuming can fully hide the fact. But Mendelson and his cast don’t appear to be playing any gender games or suggesting lesbian romantic entanglements at all (though what, I’m tempted to ask the Albee estate, would be the harm if they were – it’s only one out of thousands of productions of the play, and one of the glories of the theater is that a show can be twisted and turned and still, because the script remains its core, retain its shape for the next production to begin anew). The women actors who are playing male roles are simply actors who happen to be women playing characters who happen to be men. If there’s anything liberating about this casting, it’s that it opens up good roles to women actors who don’t ordinarily get a chance to play them. And in this case they’re playing them as men, the way the roles were written.

Muñoz pins a flower on Berkshire. Photo: David Kinder

Gender-switching in the theater, of course, is nothing especially new. Grande Dames of the stage have taken on the great male roles to acclaim. Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet, and Pelléas in Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and the title role in the stage adaptation of Goethe’s Werther. All of the great Shakespearean women’s roles were played originally by boys, creating a kind of knowing tease that rippled with identity jokes: a boy pretending to be a woman pretending to be a boy until she’s revealed to be a woman, except that, of course, the audiences realizes she’s still being played by a boy. And many a Sir of the English stage has reveled in the drolleries of doing drag. (In fact, Lady Bracknell, that great imperious force in Earnest, is often played in drag).

O’Brien and Johnson: love is a many-splintered thing. Photo: David Kinder

Perhaps because it’s such an exercise in style Earnest is a hard play to pull off successfully, especially for American actors, who tend not to be trained as rigorously in the precision of speech as their British counterparts. Farce, too, calls for a crisp quickness and felicity of tongue that aren’t necessarily first nature on the American stage. I’ve seen productions of Earnest where the dialogue was a dreary muddle, and others where the dialogue was spoken crisply but everything was slowed down to an elementary-reader pace, letting the air seep out slowly and leaving the comic tires flat. Mendelson and company largely avoid those pitfalls at Artists Rep, although vocal crispness varies from actor to actor (the excellent Mary McDonald-Lewis was on hand to work on voice and text). But if it isn’t perfect (what in life is?) it’s a very good Earnest, with peaks and plateaus.

One peak is Linda Alper’s grandly vivid performance as Lady Bracknell, who is one of the great showoff roles of the English stage, a character with endless depths of shallowness. It takes, contrarily, great depth as a performer to play such shallowness with conviction, and Alper does it emphatically. Another peak is Kailey Rhodes’s fluttery, flirtatious, and comically attuned performance as the young and marriage-worthy Gwendolyn Fairfax (she is nicely matched debutante for debutante by Crystal Ann Muñoz’s equally vainglorious and flirty Cecily Cardew), a turn that brings out the almost dancerly physical possibilities of farcical comedy. And Berkshire’s Algernon is a bright and vivid presence, almost a faerieland spirit, especially in the later stages when “he” shows up at Jack’s country home pretending to be the nonexistent Ernest, and seems quite naturally so. Maybe it has something to do with the straw boating hat.

You switched what? From left: O’Brien, Lucht, Rea, Rhodes, Alper as the truth outs. Photo: David Kinder

Speaking of hats, Bobby Brewer-Wallin’s costumes are once again rich and sumptuous delights, statements of period and style and the sort of braggadocio that allows all of Wilde’s elaborate pretending to carry on with a properly convincing flourish. So, too, with Megan Wilkerson’s clean and crisply illustrative set, which suggests tile and stained glass and seems to take some cues from William Morris’s Arts & Crafts designs and Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of enchanted beings. Sound designer Jen Raynak has put together an equally enchanting playlist of oldtime popular songs, in renditions that seem to come from very early recordings, and which set the mood before the show and during intermission.


The Importance of Being Earnest continues through June 11 on the Alder Stage at Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.



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