Fresh Eyes on EARNEST, 1st Installment
This week, rehearsals began for our upcoming production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Artists Rep's production of Oscar Wilde's classic comedy that sends up Victorian society comes with a twist: an all-female cast.
Why such a choice, one might wonder? Well, first, it is fairly common for this play to be performed with men playing Lady Bracknell (David Suchet and Brian Bedford being only the most recent examples) and there have been several all-male productions, but there's little evidence of anyone producing the reverse, an all-female version of Earnest. So we were curious about that: how might an all female version of The Importance of Being Earnest play? What insights into gender and relationships might pop up through this change? That curiosity, combined with the fact that our Resident Artist company is rich with talented actresses, lead us to the production. Voila!
Two veteran Fresh Eyes participants, Anthony Hudson and Brennan Randel were at the first formal read through on April 19, 2017. The concept along with design plans were presented, along with a reading of the script by the cast. Here are their observations from this first rehearsal:
"You never talk anything but nonsense."
"Nobody ever does."
As the terrible, predictable queer person sitting with in-process-bleached blonde hair at Artist Rep's first cast reading of The Importance of Being Earnest, I have to admit I'm not all that familiar with the play. I know Oscar Wilde is a queer legend. I know my community and I owe him for his contributions and sacrifices. I know the work is a classic. And I know Reese Witherspoon was in the movie. I'm familiar with it in that I know I should nod my head and go "ohhh, mmhmm" if it comes up in conversation the same way I would if the topics of Shakespeare or recycling came up. But otherwise I'm here to watch and learn - a crash course in advancing my theatrical awareness and Queer 101.
It's a good time for it, too. I've been thinking about Wilde lately, having read that in a month we're approaching the the anniversary of his trial and imprisonment for gross indecency - this production will actually open five days shy of the 122nd anniversary of his conviction. Wilde, an iconoclast and genius critic of his time who lived infinitely beyond his (and perhaps even our) time, never recovered from this fall and his sentencing to hard labor.
In setting up the play, director Michael Mendelson worried that the show was too fluffy or silly in light of the nationwide M. Night Shyamalan-ian twist that was our country's election of Donald J. Trump. But Michael, with ART, pressed forward - after all, the play deals with the masks we put on, the self-serving, illusory nature of appearances, and the inanity of the upper class. While Wilde's words are smooth and fluffy and tickle upon entry, they're smart, incisive, and they make just as much fun of the Wildean upper class of 1895 as they do the to-do world of DeVoses and Ryans and McConnells and Trumps who got us into this mess.
And then there's the actual twist - the concept. An all-woman cast. And, most shocking about it - they're playing it straight. Just the act of casting all women - in an art form where for years and generations the works of Shakespeare were solely performed by men - is revolutionary. As relayed by artistic director Dámaso Rodriguez, the choice came in response to the fact that so many productions of Earnest are done with men in drag that casting women in productions has become "refreshing." Michael Mendelson went even further, pointing to something (to which I can attest to as a drag queen working in a mostly king-less town) when he said, "in our society it's conventionally funny to see men dressed as women but not the other way around."
And it's not that women playing men's roles is intrinsically hilarious, or the inclusion of Judy Chicago's vagina plate series alongside Beardsley prints as a design aesthetic should make us laugh because vaginas --- but what's more biting than, in 2017 when an Oval Office full of men can proudly pose with a bill limiting women's healthcare choices, an all-female cast recites 122-year-old-lines like "Where questions of self-sacrifice are concerned, men are infinitely beyond us," and "They have moments of physical courage of which we women know absolutely nothing."
As the programmer and producer of QUEER HORROR, my two-year-old movie screening series at the Hollywood Theatre, I made the decision to devote my 2017 programming to all women-centric films in response to this Trumpocalypse, and it's not for the sake of appearances or feeling more equitable than thou. It's because these stories matter and for some reason it's still controversial to highlight women in a cast - just look at the preemptive response to the Ghostbusters remake, or men's rights activists' cries over the female-led direction of Disney's new Star Wars saga. Doing this show with all women isn't just timely, it's (to use a regrettable term) ballsy. As Mendelson noted while addressing the fear of directors who lose their plays to overwrought concepts, "An all-woman cast is concept enough."
This is 2017. Even though an Earnest with women shouldn't be, it somehow - and wonderfully so - is concept enough, and it is cutting edge. And I can't wait to see just how deep that edge can slice.
Today was the design presentations and first read for Artist Repertory Theatre’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and as I reflect on the read today I find that I may have been the only person in the room who doesn’t know how the play ends. For a one-hundred-and-twenty-year-old play I am woefully unfamiliar with Oscar Wilde and any of his literature. How fresh do you really want my eyes?
The design presentations were, as always, interesting, and I find myself quite looking forward to the textures and environment that each designer brings to this world. Many of the historical design patterns and elements will serve to create a world that is as beautiful and ornate as was Oscar Wilde’s use of language. I found each presentation to be quite well oriented to the 1890’s setting and I think the tying of each location to a somewhat static set will prove to be interesting, challenging, and will draw on the dynamic talents of each actor. I’m glad the director and designers decided not to ‘modernize’ the play through costume, language updates or set; this paired with the gender bend of the two major characters would have likely been too much for the audience to process. I’m grateful to the Fresh Eyes program for the chance to work through the layers of this show, because much like the layers of Victorian clothing in the costumes there are hidden details throughout the script.
Initially I find myself confused by the gender bend that is being done with this cast. I understand from the design presentations that Lady Bracknell has been previously played by men in drag, and while this seems oddly appropriate (especially for the jabs that this play takes at matronly Victorian society), this casting decision seems disjointed right now. Through the rehearsal process I hope to see the transition of Ayanna and Jamie’s characters from the modern strong women I know them to be, to their translation of the Victorian masculine, bachelor, businessman, playboy characters. Today, the female written characters were spot on! The forced, vapid servitude to society while waiting for a husband to be chosen for them shows the overarching strong male versus weak female that dominated the time. Lady Bracknell’s character is perhaps the only strong female in the whole play. The matron character with a need to order the lives of all who surround her was an interesting display of age in Victorian society when duty to family and lineage was of utmost importance and even marriages were largely business mergers. The difference in country and city lives of the characters parallels well to the modern split lives that we lead. Our home versus work lives, or public versus private life, or actual versus digital lives… how much do we want to intertwine these lives, and what ‘explosive’ consequences happen when the two lives meet unexpectedly? In all earnest, sit down, have a cucumber sandwich and get ready for a comical ride.