When a play is dependent on its cleverness of language, does it help or hinder the audience’s understanding to clothe the production in the visual context of its day?
Boulevard Theatre’s Mark Bucher is betting that the crackling dialogue and ironic language inversions of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” will excel on its own merits. To that end, the tiny Bay View troupe has stripped down the two-and-one-half-hour comedy of ill manners to its essence, presenting characters in contemporary dress and dropped into a minimalist setting.
Bucher calls it “naked wit – full-frontal cleverness unadorned by sets and costumes.” It’s an economical approach for the company that, for the most part, works for the audience.
Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people,” as the author referred to it, premiered Feb. 14, 1895, at London’s St. James Theatre. The gay author was then at the height of his fame. The high farce focuses on two protagonists who take on false identities to escape their social obligations. They both assume the name “Earnest” at different times, which leads to mistaken identities, one of the elements of humor driving the narrative.
Wilde at the time was criticized for writing a play with no redeeming social message, a style popular in his day. However, the apparent lack of message is in itself commentary on Victorian mores. Wilde’s subtle skewering of society’s elite through absurd humor may have had audiences laughing at themselves, as well as taking an inventory of their own social behaviors.
Bucher’s version follows that same thread, presenting the characters of Jack Worthing (David Matthew Bohn) and Algernon (Kyle Queenan) as self-involved, socially irresponsible young knaves who create false friends and fake obligations to avoid their social duties. They alternately assume the name “Earnest” in part to woo socially demanding Gwendolyne (Tess Cinpinski), daughter of the formidable Lady Bracknell (Margaret Casey), and naïve, empty-headed Cecily (Meagan Kaminsky), Jack Worthing’s young ward.
The cast largely hits its marks, with Bohn and Queenan blathering through Wilde’s lengthy dialogue like sharp knives through a stale cucumber sandwich. In Bucher’s theatrical democracy, all dialogue is delivered equally, which unfortunately dulls some of the author’s sharper points amid the sheer volume of words.
There also are a variety of affected moments that, in this case, actually prove perhaps to be too few. The aforementioned lack of visual context requires greater care with dialogue, narrative and the few physical movements at the troupe’s disposal. More strategic articulation in dialogue delivery and a little more affect in the blocking and movement would have given the play’s silly story more wit and a sharper point, both of which Wilde would have appreciated.
But that’s not to say the Nov. 12 audience and actors didn’t have fun. The cast delivered with the right level of energy, including Clarence Aumend as the butler Lane, Mary Buchel as prim Miss Prism and a hilarious David Ferrie as the salacious Canon Chasuble. Boulevard’s up-close-and-personal setting brought actors and audience members together for maximum effect.
“Earnest,” which made Wilde even more popular than he already had been, also marked the end of his career. An ongoing feud with the Marquess of Queensbury (the father of Lord Alfred Douglas, with whom Wilde was alleged to be having an affair) came to a climax in court. Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor for “gross indecency.”
The experience, which yielded the treatise “De Profundis” and the poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” broke the Irish author physically and spiritually. In 1900, five years after the premier of his greatest work, Wilde died destitute in Paris.
Still, Wilde lives on through his often revived works, which include social satires like “Lady Wendemere’s Fan,” “A Woman of No Importance” and “An Ideal Husband.” If nothing else, count Boulevard Theatre’s production as another homage – and a good one, too – to one of literature’s great social satirists.
Unfortunately, there aren’t that many of them around anymore.
This spring, Broadway is putting on shows that are certain to draw LGBT audiences from all over the world, along with at least one offering of special interest to cheeseheads. If you’re headed to the Big Apple, here’s what you don’t want to miss.
‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’
The hottest new Broadway musical this spring is “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” based on the Australian film of the same title. Although the 1994 film was created on a shoestring budget, no expense was spared to launch the stage musical extravaganza. Want more? How about such yummy cast members as Will Swenson (“Hair”) as Tick/Mitzi, Tony Sheldon as Bernadette and Nick Adams as Adam/Felicia? Gender-bending obviously is rampant in this goofy, lovable script. The show opened in late February at the Palace Theatre.
From the light and airy to the tough, there’s “Lombardi” at Broadway’s Circle in the Square. You are from Wisconsin, right? You do love the Green Bay Packers, right? Well, even if you can’t catch a forward pass, catch this show. Eric Simonson’s play beat the odds and has been drawing crowds (and mostly positive reviews) since last October. Dan Lauria is chillingly realistic as Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi. As Lombardi, he gives pep talks directly to the audience as if he were talking to his players. Don’t be surprised if you leave the theater feeling inspired. Also top-notch in this production is gay icon and former Milwaukee Repertory Theater company member Judith Light. Playing Marie Lombardi, she is touchingly brilliant as a woman who can stand toe-to-toe with her man yet always make him feel as if he’s in charge.
Unfortunately, don’t look for locker room scenes with half-naked men (darn!). However, actor Bill Dawes (as Paul Hornung) shows off his six-pack abs in a couple of post-workout scenes. You may find some audience members wearing Packers jerseys, caps and (yes) even cheeseheads. Don’t be one of them.
‘The Importance of Being Earnest’
Back to the gender-bending themes. English actor Brian Bedford takes charge as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Bedford is best known on Broadway for his interpretations of Moliere (“School for Wives,” “Tartuffe”) and Shakespeare (“As You Like It,” “Timon of Athens”). In this 1895 comedy of manners, his understated performance mines the essence of a formidable matriarch. Bedford is so convincing as a grande dame that the audience roars when he lowers his voice (briefly) to a male pitch.
Unfortunately, the rest of the show isn’t as funny as it could be. One wonders if Bedford – who also directs – perhaps bit off more than he can chew.
Still, Bedford’s performance is not to be missed. The sets and costumes are eye-poppingly brilliant – none more so than Bedford’s elaborate gowns. The show plays at the American Airlines Theater through July 3. Not going to New York before then? No problem. The production is going to be filmed and aired at movie theaters worldwide in June.
‘La Cage aux Folles’
There’s yet more gender-bending afoot at the Longacre Theatre, where “La Cage aux Folles” has taken up residence. Earlier this spring, the show starred Kelsey Grammer (TV’s “Frasier”) as George and Douglas Hodge, who won a 2010 Tony Award for his portrayal of Albin. The men create a memorable portrait of a longtime gay couple whose relationship is tested by the upcoming wedding of George’s son. Jerry Herman’s memorable score includes ‘I Am What I Am,” “Look Over There,” and “The Best of Times (is Now).”
In recent weeks the twosome has changed to Christopher Sieber (“Shrek,” “Spamalot”) as George and Harvey Fierstein (“Hairspray”) as Albin. It is incredible to note that Fierstein also wrote the show’s book almost 30 years ago. In addition to the show’s stars, the rest of the cast is more than capable. This includes the agile, athletic and lovely Cagelles (guys in drag) who appear onstage with Albin when he transforms into “Zaza.”
Not to be left out in the springtime cold, the venerable “Billy Elliott” is more than a musical about a child dance prodigy set during a coal miners’ strike in northern England. It also explores coming-of-age themes that involve the cast’s young boys and girls. While Billy is emotionally torn between boyish pursuits and dreaming about girls, he must also accept that his best friend is probably gay – not that Billy knows exactly what that is.
While Billy isn’t always thrilled by his friend’s odd playtime themes, he tries to be tolerant. Acceptance and unity are the overriding messages that keep Billy’s family – and his community – together. Those who won’t get a chance to see “Billy” on Broadway can wait for the national tour, which plays at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton on Oct. 5-16.
There you have it – the new and the old, the brash and the bold, the fun and the frivolous. It’s all there for the taking, one ticket at a time.