It’s a strange, if exciting, thing to watch a production at war with it’s own thesis.
At a time during which much of the national conversation in the theater industry is about diversity of voices in playwright and casting, and at the exact moment the DC theatre community is engaged in a Women’s Voice Festival that has made national news, Robert McNamara has decided to stage a gender-flipped production of Oscar Wilde.
I’m a big proponent of non-traditional casting, and give credit to McNamara for risking playing with such iconic roles that are so steeped in traditional gender biases. Wilde is a problematic genius, having provided some of the most deliciously playable cads in all of western theater. Wilde’s own tragic history and persecution in England for his homosexuality are well known. This makes him an icon to the GLBTA community. Yet, from a contemporary perspective, much of his writing smacks of unexamined misogyny. Cross-gender casting could provide an opportunity to luxuriate in Wilde’s eminently playable language, while pulling back the curtain on the regressive gender politics.
There are strong points. Earnest is certainly the play to pick to dive into identity politics, given its central story of two cads given to taking false identities to blend into various high social circles to escape the perceived drudgery of their lives. It’s a lot of fun to watch great DC actor Nanna Ingvarsson have the opportunity to dig into social-climber Jack, who’s web of lies and alter egos largely drives the story.
Danielle Davy’s performance as Algernon grows more fun as the night progresses, her Algernon becoming ever more charming, gaining power and energy off the ever-growing chaos he sows. Costume design Alisa Mandel has festooned Ingvarsson and Davy in exquisite suits that serve the purpose to largely remove gender markers. Aside from pencil-thin moustaches, the effect is somewhat agendered. In both of the leading ladies performances, 1895 masculinity is largely a matter of keeping hands in pockets nearly constantly and walking with the pelvis ever so slightly thrust.
More problematic is the characterization of Wilde’s women. Whereas the male characters are played more or less without exaggerated affect, McNamara’s central women are all huge gender markers and giant gestures. Cecily and Gwendolyn (respectively played here by Robert Scheire and Graham Pilato, two actors with whom I have worked and greatly admire) prance and mince exaggeratedly across the stage, always posing, and occasionally dipping into a booming masculine voice during excited moments. Too often the characters’ femininity (or lack of it) becomes the butt of the joke in a way the masculinity of Jack and Algernon never does. I appreciate the effort to avoid the boredom of playing these scenes realistically, but Sheire and Pilato are saddled with such constant, specific exaggerated movement (all executed well, I must say) it’s near impossible to find room to craft a real character arc, and opportunities to build real chemistry between the pairs of would-be lovers are lost.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
August 21 – Sept 13
at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
Thursdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $35 – $45
Details and Tickets
McNamara has more success with small supporting roles. There’s real heat and chemistry between David Bryan Jackson’s buttoned-up Miss Prism and Amie Cazel’s twitterpated but celibate Dr. Chasuble. Brian Hemmingsen steals several scenes with his commandingly snobbish Lady Bracknell. What all these performances have in common is a simpler staging that allows more in-depth character work.
This is the second time I’ve reviewed a non-traditional Robert McNamara riff on Earnest in just the past year or so, having very much enjoyed his production of Mark Ravenhill’s pseudo-sequel Handbag. I greatly appreciate his willingness to experiment with a classic, while daring to give a little side-eye to the politics of a writer who in recent years has flirted with infallibility. Wilde is beloved, and rightfully so, but we should never stop thinking critically about even our greatest artists.
A note: This production was apparently a late replacement for a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters that was to be directed by Gabriele Jakobi. Sadly, Ms. Jakobi suffered recently suffered a stroke. SCENA has set up a fundraiser for her care. The story and details can be found here.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde . directed by Robert McNamara . Featuring Nanna Ingvarsson, Brian Hemmingsen, Danielle Davy, Bob Sheire, Graham Pilato, David Bryan Jackson, Ellie Nicoll, Amie Cazel and Mary Suib . Produced by SCENA Theater at the Atlas Performing Arts Center