September 30, 2008

An Earnest Review: Of Queer Eyes and Miss Prisms

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Oscar Wilde is the great gay martyr — the high priest of decadence, the proud scuttle-butt — of prim Vic­torian society. His own life ended in a tragedy when he admitted to his homosexuality on trial and was consequently jailed, exiled and soon after died. His most famous comedy, however, The Importance of Being Earnest, with its darkly ironic title in retrospect, shows closeted identities in a far more frivolous light, while acknowledging that politeness can often be covert policing.
“Bunburying,” as the practice of social masquerading is called throughout the play, is as easily excused as it is ubiquitously executed by the characters. Yet, as the subtitle, “a serious play for frivolous people,” implies, the play depicts hypocrisy not only to make light of it, but ultimately to offer a moral critique of those who condemn hypocrisy in vitriolic terms — as they are the very ones most susceptible to being hypocritical. If only everyone could insouciantly bury their supercilious hatchets, there wouldn’t need be anything illicit about “bunburying,” Wilde seems to say.
Such relevant concerns and morally ambivalent contexts did not obtrude in the Schwartz Center’s recent production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Rather, director Greg Bostwick offered a straight interpretation of a decidedly queer play. By keeping to the script and not going too far astray with any elaborate directorial concepts, the production allowed Wilde’s zany plot and precise zingers to shine through. While the poster and the production notes indicate that Bostwick intended to create a set “abounding with flowers and plants to underscore the play’s critique of breeding,” the actual stage — like the production itself — appeared tame and trimmed rather than sprawling with hothouse floribunda.
In Wilde’s witty comedy, the character Algernon, a dapper man-about-town played with evident relish by the charming Ian Harkins ’­­11, clears out his schedule by pretending he has engagements to visit a friend in the country named Bunbury. One day, Algernon’s real friend, who he believes is named Earnest, visits him from the country. Algernon discovers that his friend’s name is actually Jack (interpreted by Ian Jones ’10 as the straight-man character to Harkin’s rakish dandy.)
Jack, under the guise of being Earnest, wants to marry the fetching young Gwendolyn, Algernon’s cousin, but her mother, the imposing-if-not-impossible grande dame Lady Bracknell (played by RPTA Sonja Lanzener) sternly objects when she finds out that Jack was a foundling stowed in a handbag.
Jack’s description of his alluring young ward in the country, Cecily, intrigues Algernon, who hastens there behind his friend’s back. When Algernon arrives, he claims that he is Earnest, the fictional brother that Jack had long described to Cecily, and with whom she has actually already begun to fall in love, sight unseen. Ignorant of Algernon’s schemes, Jack has decided to mend his two-faced ways, claiming that his “brother” Earnest has tragically died to Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess. Gwendolyn now shows up, having followed her beloved, and both ladies argue over which one is engaged to Earnest. Both girls’ whims are infatuated with the name Earnest, and can’t countenance marrying anyone of another name. Allison Buck ’09 and Mary Gilliam ’09, respectively, inject the girls with enough vim, however, that despite being hotties with a haughty streak, they manage to seem more dashing than ditzy.
Jack and Algernon then appear, explain their plight, and decide to be rechristened. But Jack’s marriage is still halted by Lady Bracknell, who has now arrived. In return, Jack refuses to let Cecily marry Algernon. The stalemate is broken by a revelation about Miss Prism, the Bracknells’ former nursemaid. By the end of the play, the improbable circumstances tidily reconcile themselves, in time for puffy dresses and poofy ascots.
The biggest directorial decision in the play was to cast the demure character of Miss Prism as the towering RPTA John Hertzler. The character’s name itself could be a play on misprision, which both means failing to report a known offender as well as a creative misunderstanding of a text.
Yet, despite the ostensible gender-bending, the play never consummates in any frisson; we’re left with a standard, straight perspective of a queer production. In the end, the production appeared too earnest, making all the “bunburying” a tad moribund, as it tried to be faithful to a play that ironically winks at our own unfaithfulness.