The Importance of Being Earnest
at Bailiwick Repertory
By Albert Williams
A would-be heckler was turned away from the triumphant premiere of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, on Valentine’s Day 1895, before he could make a scene. He was the Marquess of Queensberry, outraged that Wilde was having an affair with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas. Prevented from airing his anger in public, he visited Wilde’s club four days later to drop off a note accusing Wilde of “posing as [a] somdomite.” The disingenuous (and misspelled) allegation–a legal ruse to expose Wilde’s homosexuality without actually having to prove it–was a weirdly appropriate capper to Wilde’s play, his greatest success but also the herald of his imminent downfall. This “trivial comedy for serious people” is all about posing–and the fact that sometimes a pose proves true. Just as Oscar Wilde turned out to be as queer as his flamboyant facade indicated, The Importance of Being Earnest is about a man named Jack who spends half his life pretending to be named Ernest–only to learn at the climax that Ernest really is the name he’s blessed and saddled with.
It’s long been recognized that Wilde’s portrait of social and sexual posturing can be read as disguised acknowledgment of his own double life–what Gary Schmidgall, in his book Stranger Wilde, calls “the prevarications and protections of the Closet.” Accordingly, recent productions have toyed with the play’s sexual ambiguity. A 1994 Court Theatre production portrayed Algernon–Jack’s “ostentatiously eligible” bachelor buddy given to “Bunburying” (visiting a fictitious friend, “Bunbury,” as a cover-up for his secret forays into unspecified vice)–as a flamboyant fop like Wilde himself. And a 1980s Body Politic production starred James Deuter en travesti as Lady Bracknell, the social climbing gorgon whose daughter, Gwendolen, Jack woos. Playwright Paul Doust took the idea of Bracknell as a drag role even farther in Lady Bracknell’s Confinement (produced at the old Organic Theater in 1994): Doust revealed the domineering dowager to be a working-class man who’d posed as a woman in order to marry above his station.
Such reinterpretations have tended to be intriguing teases, toying with Earnest’s gay subtext without delving into it–a sort of sexual “shilly-shallying with the question,” to use Lady Bracknell’s criticism of a chronic invalid who will neither recover nor die. But the Fabulous Monsters performance troupe goes several steps farther. A Los Angeles ensemble whose members include several former Chicagoans–most notably Paula Killen and Cynthia Orthal, costars of Goodman Theatre’s feminist buccaneer drama A Pirate’s Lullaby a couple of years ago–it’s making its local debut with a completely cross-gendered version of the play.
And since its opening January 8, the show’s proved to be one of the more controversial efforts in recent Windy City theater history. Several first-nighters of my acquaintance have called the show “hateful” and “a horror,” and many observers were shocked when the Tribune’s Richard Christiansen walked out at intermission. But the audience at the sold-out Saturday show I attended, two nights after the opening, received the production with sincerely satisfied laughter, not the forced hilarity of too many opening-night claques. This may not be great theater or stylistically correct Wilde, but its idiosyncratic twist on this classic script offers a kind of access to the work that more elegant, polished renditions may not. Audiences on the fringe-theater and performance-art circuit, who may not be inclined to patronize Court and other theaters they perceive as middle-of-the-road–who may not even have seen The Importance of Being Earnest except in some god-awful college or community staging–will find much to enjoy here.
Working from both the standard three-act version of Earnest and the less well-known four-act original, director Robert A. Prior has done more than simply cast men as women and vice versa. He’s coached the actors to consciously (sometimes too self-consciously) comment not only on the characters but on the ridiculousness of the play itself, aiming less for comedy of manners than for outright farce or, in the coincidence-packed climax, old-fashioned melodrama. The results are mixed, ranging from quirky, insightful new line readings to exaggerated drag-show gesturing, ludicrously affected accents, and silly, even stupid sight gags: Algernon stubbing out his cigarette in Jack’s tea, Jack and Gwendolen blowing kisses back and forth. But Wilde’s stinging, perfectly phrased witticisms carry the day even when the performances grow tediously indulgent. And when script and delivery work together, there’s a raffish freshness that more stylistically correct renditions such as Court’s have lacked.
Eschewing any attempt at believable Victorian elegance, Prior has designed a cartoonish set emphasizing the play’s theme of impersonation and artifice. Framed by a false proscenium are a few real pieces of furniture (including a round settee, cleverly turned into a fountain for the second-act garden). But most of the scenery is drawn in Beardsleyesque black and white–and includes pictures of patrons in box seats on either side of the stage. The privates of a caricature of a nude male garden statue are barely hidden by the plants that sweet little Cecily, Jack’s naive and nubile teenage ward, spends an awful lot of time watering.
Few other plays have been preserved on film in the definitive way The Importance of Being Earnest has: the 1952 celluloid version set the standard for elegant hilarity. And Fabulous Monsters’ production seems a response not just to the play but to the classic movie–certainly in the case of David Nichols as Gwendolen, the fashion plate Jack hopes to marry. The ultrathin, deep-voiced Nichols is deliciously reminiscent of Joan Greenwood’s stylishly sultry Gwendolen in the film–a shrewd mix of feline femininity and steel-trap cunning. And Nichols makes clearer than any actress I’ve seen in the part onstage that Gwendolen’s main attraction to Jack is that her mother doesn’t like him–or his supposed name, Ernest, which is why Gwendolen is determined to marry a man with that name. Cynthia Orthal plays the stalwart, manly Jack; Bliss is airily innocent yet instinctively sexy as Cecily; Tina Gluschenko plays two valets, a spooky Englishman in town and a hot-tempered Scot in the country; and Mark Brey is a gangly, grotesque schemer of a Lady Bracknell who seems to have come out of a Lewis Carroll nightmare–imagine the Red Queen crossed with the Caterpillar.
The production’s linchpin, however, is Paula Killen as Algernon, the smarmy sybarite whose mischievous manipulations motor the plot: over Jack’s objections he sets out to woo Cecily. As in Court’s 1994 production, Fabulous Monsters see Algernon as a surrogate Wilde; but Court’s more
realistic take on the play was undermined by Larry Yando’s ultrafey characterization, which made it impossible to believe that this Algernon really wanted Cecily–or any woman for that matter. This show, with all the actors obviously playing characters of the opposite sex, throws believability to the winds, and we’re thus freed to enjoy Killen’s Algernon as a figure of Wildean excess and eccentricity. Selfish, mercurial, alternately cynical and sloppily sentimental, given to bursts of “satanic laughter” (as Andre Gide described Wilde’s laugh) yet visibly moved and astonished to realize he’s fallen in love with Cecily, this Algernon is a glutton who binges on other people’s finger food (rather than playfully nibbling muffins, as most Algernons do), a rakish dandy who’s clearly a misfit in the high society in which he must move. Killen’s Algernon is foolish and witty, puerile and sophisticated–like the production as a whole.
“I don’t play accurately–anyone can play accurately–but I play with wonderful expression,” says Algernon of his unorthodox piano playing. Fabulous Monsters can make the same claim for their spotty but risky, often entertaining, and sometimes invigoratingly audacious production.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Jennifer Gerard.