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The Importance of Being Earnest -11/28/1998

By Oscar Wilde. Cast: Tessa Besina Auza, Ann Haugo, Marilyn Leonard, Angela Schneider, Erin Meeker, C. G. Estabrook, Charles R. Schoenherr, Buck Zachary, Mark Alan Hudson, Spencer Smith, Kelly F. Maxwell. Director: Chad Eric Bergman. Costume Designer: Nicole Faurant. Lighting Designer: Logan Shunmugam. Scenic Designer: Darren Cloud.

Parkland College Department of Fine and Applied Arts through November 14. Parkland College Theater, 2400 West Bradley
Avenue, Champaign. Box office: 351-2528.


The things they’re doing to Oscar Wilde these days...

First “The Ideal Husband” got revived in London and on Broadway, with one of the characters “outed” and looking like a dead ringer for Mr. Wilde himself.

After that, we got two plays and a movie about Oscar’s private life, with all his dirty linen laid bare (and with lots of linen literally on display in the play “Gross Indecencies.”)

Then came an all-male version of Wilde’s best play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” with the characters updated into gay men and sent to the Hamptons. That one’s still playing off-Broadway. Now, Parkland College’s theater department and director Chad Eric Bergman give us something completely different -- a gender-swapped “Earnest.”

In this one, the women dress in trousers and play male roles, while the men rouge up, wiggle into dresses, and tackle classic characters like Lady Bracknell, that fabulous dragon of the stage. (I feel sure actors in drag have played Lady Bracknell before, by the way.)

It’s an intriguing idea to contemplate, and seems likely to have been a lot of fun for the cast -- as well as a major challenge.

Unfortunately, on stage it turns out to be a one-note joke. Once you’re past the laughs over how silly everyone looks cross-dressed this way, you notice that the wonderfully witty Wilde script, the bon mots and double entendres, just don’t survive this drag show.

The problem is that the characters are at the heart of “Earnest.” Yes, Wilde is arch and mannered. Yes, the comedy is drawing-room stuff. But it still works because the people seem real to us. Adorable, eccentric, amusing, secretive and sly, but real.

And these boys-dressed-as-girls and girls-dressed-as-boys never seem to get to that point. I’d like to contemplate that a cast of the best actors of our time -- Anthony Hopkins as Lady Bracknell, Meryl Streep as Jack Worthington -- could pull it off. But probably not even they could do “Earnest” justice that way.

Director Bergman does not seem to have gone for verisimilitude, depending more on sight gags. On some level, it is funny to see a burly actor like Buck Zachary giggling and mincing as sweet young Felicity, or a mismatched pair like tiny Tessa Besina Auza and the much taller Charles R. Schoenherr as a mini-Jack and his giant lady love Gwendolen. And watching this show will certainly make you reconsider your preconceived notions on physical attractiveness.

Still, even the best actor among them -- Schoenherr, who plays the fetching Gwendolen with just the right walk, tilt of the head, intonation and commitment -- can’t quite make it work. The cast as a whole is not helped by repetitive, unconvincing blocking and too much dependence on stock gestures, especially among the females-playing-males.

Supporting the show on the technical side, Nicole Faurant’s costume design is first-rate, and Darren Cloud’s scenic design is also interesting, although at times the stage seemed a bit bare and the action too spread out.

On opening night, this gender-bent “Earnest” played to an appreciative audience which clearly enjoyed the chance to see friends and family dressing up early for Halloween. Unfortunately, that’s about as deep as most of the characterization went -- as if the actors were merely standing around in costumes as someone would at a Halloween party, rather than inhabiting theatrical characters.

It’s amusing, but not the play “The Importance of Being Earnest” can and should be.

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