Scena Theatre explores double lives and gender identity in its summer production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
By Julie LaPorte
Audience members are in for a surprise this summer as Scena Theatre presents Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. This tongue-in-cheek take on a classic has all the elements of Oscar Wilde – wit, irreverence and the pursuit of pleasure – with the added bonus of reversed gender roles. For this production, the men are playing the women’s parts and the women are playing the men’s. It’s a move Wilde surely would have smiled at.
“I’ve wanted to do the play for a long time,” said Artistic Director Robert McNamara. “Normally when Oscar Wilde is produced, it’s done in a traditional way, but I wanted to do it with the mixed-up gender roles. I always felt that in Oscar Wilde’s sexual universe a man could be a woman or a woman could be a man.”
Moving the action forward to the Roaring Twenties, McNamara said he wanted to merge a 19th century classic with Hollywood black-and-white film aesthetics. He was also inspired by Some Like It Hot, a film where Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis spend most of the time in drag. Behind the action in the second act, film titles like the dialogue in silent films flash up, providing documentary-like commentary and referencing Wilde, Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
There is no question that this play is over the top – trumped up stereotypes, exaggerated movements and facial expressions – you can see the legacy of the melodramatic heroes and villains from silent films. There were moments at the beginning of the play that fell flat, when the performers didn’t quite fill the skin of their characters, but by the second act there was a better rhythm and dynamic that was really enjoyable to watch.
A few of the scenes that stood out were Lady Bracknell’s interview with Mr. Worthing on his eligibility as a suitor for Gwendolen’s hand, the forced politeness at the meeting of Gwendolen and Cecily in the country and the confused antics during the big reveal at the end. These scenes sparkled with perfectly timed lines and real chemistry between the performers.
Brian Hemmingsen’s understated performance as Lady Bracknell is worth the price of admission, and he stole every scene he was in. Balancing massive feather hats and draped in fabric, Hemmingsen was perfectly imperious and scathing with every word and gesture. Sara Barker, who played Algernon Moncrieff, delivered Wilde’s one-liners with wonderful comic timing and facial expressions and easily captured the frivolity and carefree nature of Algernon. And John Robert Keena’s Cecily Cardew was sensitive and hopeful on the surface, but full of iron determination when confronted. Rounding out the rest of the cast were Kim Curtis as Miss Prism, Tyler Herman as Gwendolen Fairfax, Ellie Nicoll as Lane, Anne Nottage as John Worthing, Mary Suib as Merriman and Stacy Whittle as Rev. Canon Chasuble.
The Importance of Being Earnest is playing through August 29 at the H Street Playhouse. The performances on August 7 and August 28 are part of Scena’s Drag Days of Summer and audience members are welcome to come dressed in drag. For more information and to buy tickets, visit Scena Theatre.