By Molly Cox
When director Gabriele Jakobi fell seriously ill while preparing to direct Chekov’s The Three Sisters for the Scena Theatre, the company was forced to change course. Led by Robert McNamara, they pulled together to put on The Importance of Being Earnest. Was it successful? Earnest is a delight. The Scena cast delivers Wilde’s sharp, witty dialogue effortlessly. With an already hilarious script, casting male actors as the female characters and vice versa put this production over the top.
The story centers around two Englishmen who create fake identities, relatives, and friends to climb the social ladder and escape the boredom of being filthy rich. Nanna Ingvarsson (a seasoned actress who gives the most successful female to male performance) plays Jack, a foundling who inherited his fortune from the man who raised him. Danielle Davy plays Algernon, an upper-class dandy who loves the finer things in life, which has left him steeped in debt but always fashionable. When they fall in love, the comedy of errors that follow as they trip over their lies gives the audience a thoroughly enjoyable show. For some reason, women playing male characters is rarely as funny or interesting as the opposite, and I wish the two could have taken their characters even further. I wanted to see the same exaggeration of masculinity from the actresses that the lead actors gave their female roles.
The portrayals of Wilde’s women are reminiscent of classic Monty Python characters. Graham Pilato as Gwendolyn is particularly absurd (in a good way of course), pronouncing his R’s as W’s and taking shuffling little steps across the stage. His Gwendolyn also appears to be inspired by Ms. Piggy, his voice and demeanor going from high-pitched and sweet to deep and angry on a dime. Robert Scheire plays Cecily who is similarly an exaggerated and hilariously twisted interpretation of a young English lady. A minor character who stands out for me was Miss Prism, played by David Bryan Jackson. Jackson’s understated portrayal of Cecily’s teacher is no less engaging that his over the top male counterparts.
Despite many successful aspects of the performances, there is no real chemistry between the couples. This didn’t diminish the overall production in my opinion, but it would have been nice to see the actors fitting more comfortably in their characters’ gender. Ingvarsson and Brian Hemmingsen (as the powerful Matriarch Lady Bracknell) seem to have the most success at this. Lady Bracknell steals the show on several occasions with her intensity and commanding presence (enhanced further by her giant hat).
Though of the best and most famous writers in London, Wilde suffered a tragic fate similar to other brilliant LGBT people. After his affair with another man was discovered, Wilde was imprisoned for gross indecency and died a few years after his release, exiled and penniless. His wit, extravagance, killer one-liners, and tenacity make Oscar Wilde a gay icon and literary giant to this day. One can only imagine how he would feel seeing Scena’s production of his play, in this day and age when LGBT rights have come so far. Gender fluidity and androgyny are accepted and celebrated by many people today, and in The Importance of Being Earnest, the audience laughs with the crossd ressing actors, not at them.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs through September 13 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Donations to help with Ms. Jakobi’s medical treatment can be made here.