Fresh Eyes on EARNEST, 4th Installment
Tech week! After three weeks in the rehearsal hall with the set design taped out on the floor and bits of costumes (mostly petticoats, corsets and shoes), the cast and crew of The Importance of Being Earnest moved onto the Alder Stage this week. Suddenly the show starts to inhabit a richer, more detailed world, and the precision developed in the rehearsal hall is now even more important than before. Anthony Hudson reports on his experience watching the first day of tech.
It's tech week and the set is beautifully, ornately completed. It's the first time we're seeing a set of any kind used in rehearsals. Previously there had been some space marked out for stairs, and at best there was a mobile bench. Now the actors get to occupy a black-and-white Aubrey Beardsley wonderland with a painted placard downstage left that reads: "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."
Old-time gramophone cues echo through the space as the same opening tech cue is set up, started, stopped, and repeated endlessly. This repetition without completion feels like creative death, but in actuality it's the labor pains of the show, and soon it will be crowning. The wonder of tech is the meticulous training of the mechanism of theatre, and even if it is mind-numbing, it forces a sort of meditation on its bystanders. The same piano medley is digging into my skull as the crew fights to get through the opening cues, and 50 minutes into the process we finally get to dialogue.
In a tech-ridden haze, I'm immediately struck by the entrances of Earnest and Algernon in wigs and costumes, sans rehearsal glasses, and dressed in full character for the first time. They're men! Honestly, they look so different than the actors I've been watching for weeks. And most fascinatingly, the illusion is sold without the actors having to wear binders - wraps that push down and conceal breasts used by drag kings, some trans men, and other gender non-conformers - and this seems a vastly important decision for this cast. These characters look and sound and move as men, but we have this subtle reminder (in male costume no less) that all is not as it seems.
Lady Bracknell enters and everyone screams. Like the men, it's her debut in full costume, and it becomes instantly apparent why Bracknell is often portrayed by men in drag. Linda Alper, Bracknell's avatar, has been transformed into a giant purple drag queen. Her huge-plumed, feathered hat feels almost as tall as she is, and it sways gloriously every time she moves. Noting its wondrous movement, Alper smiles as she realizes she's been transformed into some sort of bird woman. "I should have a beak, though," she says, pantomiming a giant beak as she delicately sips her tea.
After the relief of running the opening scene we're back to running cues, and I find myself staring at the set again in between these long cycles of set up, cue, start, stop, repeat. Like Wilde's words and Lady Bracknell's everything, it's a lot take in. It dazzles and you lose yourself in it. I've always loved Beardsley and his flourish-full patterns precisely because you can lose yourself in the ornamentation - and now I'm stuck scouring it, trying to find a trace of the Judy Chicago vagina plate series that was mentioned by the set designer on Day 1 as an influential design motif; alas, if there is a vagina reference it's subtle, and I can't find one. Instead I find a rainbow. It's the tiniest rainbow lurking upstage left against a white column, and it only appears during one specific lighting setting, perhaps inadvertently created by a reflection off the period-reconstruction light fixture that hangs over the set.
"Don't you just want to live on this set?" Michael says to me.
"I do," I say. "And I really appreciate that rainbow upstage left. I don't think it's intentional but I love it."
"It's not," he says, and he stops and smiles as he notices it. "That's our tribute to Wilde."
The rainbow may be corrected and excised by the time this show goes to previews and then opens next week, but even without it I think Wilde would find much to take away as an honored tribute. The hilarious characterizations, the incisive timing, the dazzlingly over-the-top set and costumes, the drag - all of it crafted with so much play to delight and tease, and just sincere enough to be a little dangerous.