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Scena Theatre, like just about every other company in the region, was poised to produce Chekhov this year (Three Sisters). But that show’s director had a stroke, and while she is recovering, the company has—quite admirably—scrambled and pulled together a last-minute remount of Director Robert McNamara’s 2010 production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
The substitution is sensible enough: Oscar Wilde’s famously droll script is a crowd pleaser (especially when staged in a neighborhood with such a good availability of pre-show cocktails). Designer Michael C. Stepowany’s set is bare-bones and easily constructed, serving as easily as the interior of a London flat as it can the garden of an English country house with some minimal furniture rearrangement.
That’s more or less where “sensible” decisions about this Oscar Wilde adaptation end. That’s not to say that the sillier artistic choices are without merit, but they don’t bear much thematic connection to the original text (or to each other, in many cases). These updates could have easily been picked out of a (flamboyant, fake-bird-adorned) hat: For example, the 1920s setting wouldn’t really be clear to audiences if the program didn’t spell it out. Or the confusing screen set center stage with a display that alternates between greyscale garden settings and titlecards. Even the title cards are nonsensical, ranging from explanatory (“Bunburyist!” appears, perhaps out of concern that the word would be misheard if it weren’t literally spelled out) to confounding (“Enter the dragon!” one declares enthusiastically). When combined with the black-and-white set, it would seem to suggest old silent films had inspired the staging, but the costumes and props still appear in full color. And so on: Most of the additions made to the play are nonsensical, though they’re saved by their sense of well-intentioned—dare I say, earnest—playfulness.
The show handily pulls off its riskiest gamble, and it’s the one for which this production should be remembered: the gender-swapped roles. The result is undeniably fun. Women play the foppish male roles, including the mustachioed manspreaders Jack (Nanna Ingvarsson) and Algernon (Danielle Davy) as they vie with each other for ownership over the invented persona of “Earnest” in order to deceive, woo, and marry the women with whom they’ve instantly fallen in love.
The men-as-high-society-ladies substitution works even better; the women vying for the affection of the non-existent Earnest are not decked out in the towering wigs and extravagant makeup of high drag. These upper-crust ladies are instead burly, deep-voiced, and unshaven, which leads to some inspired moments like Lady Bracknell (Brian Hemmingsen) causing tremors when leaping out of her chair (picture, if you can, Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess as portrayed by Geoffrey Rush). One of the best scenes in the play, where newly-minted best frenemies Cecily (Bob Sheire) and Gwendolyn (Graham Pilato) express their sisterly love and loathing of each other, takes on an inspired new level of frathouse-style bromance by way of insult comedy. An added emphasis, for example, on the word “country” turns it into an insult (or “countwy” in this case, as Pilato’s Gwendolyn speaks with rounded Rs and a lisp).
It’s hard to think that Wilde would disapprove of some added homoeroticism or humor to his work. You do have to wonder why a play so universally renowned for its wit is in need of added humor at all, especially when the new jokes are as simple as Algernon’s habit of piano-tinkering being replaced with blowing on a kazoo. There’s nothing indispensably important about this production of Earnest, but as an attempt at levity in the face of tragic circumstances, the show succeeds.
1333 H St. NE. $35–$45. (202) 399-7993. scenatheatre.org