This is a walk on the Wilde side. And a Wilde ride it is. It's Etcetera's wild re-imagining of Oscar Wilde's best-known work, The Importance of Being Earnest.
The risk-taking Etcetera, the late-night branch of the often-impressive Live Theatre Workshop, embraces Wilde's comedy with enthusiasm, irreverence and not a shred of remorse about taking great—and I do mean great—liberties with the delicious script.
Premiering in London on Valentine's Day 1895, Wilde's play is a gloriously witty send-up of Victorian high-mindedness. It's a story of class and civilized duplicity. Of best friends—Jack and Algernon—who create alter egos to spare themselves from the excessive propriety their high station requires of them. Of frivolous young women—Gwendolen and Cecily—who dream of marrying men whose names must be Ernest. They like the way the name sounds, and they like what it implies.
In Etcetera's version, this quartet is openly gay. Gwendolen and Cecily mutate into Gavin and Cecil. Lady Bracknell, one of theater's great roles for women, is performed in drag. The other roles undergo similar gender-bending.
Now, when a piece of dramatic literature—and it's usually a very choice piece—has been transposed to another era and place with its attendant differences in laws, mores, customs, a serious student of the theater poses the question: Why? Does the change enhance the themes of the original? Does it make the play more accessible? Does it shine light on the probing questions, the sensibilities, the intentions of the playwright's?
So you could ask: Why transform Wilde's jewel of a play into a gay-friendly (at least gay-male-friendly) version?
Warning: Do not attempt. This Earnest is a burlesque. The Oscar Wilde-Gone-Wild Follies. It's an "I've got a great idea" lark and an "aw, to heck with it" gamble.
And it's pretty darned entertaining.
Why is it set in the 1980s? I have no idea. Why switch the setting from London and "the country" to New York and Connecticut? Not a clue. And why after relocating the action to the colonies do most of the actors speak with a Brit's accent? You've got me.
So, don't ask. Just suspend any need to make sense of all these choices; pay your $10; and take a seat.
Christopher Johnson, who directs the production, plays a coked-out Algernon whose choice of fashion is sure to give you painful flashbacks to your own woeful '80s fashion sense. And it will, quite unfortunately, stick in your mind, like gold to lamé.
Eric Anson is less-convincing as Jack, but he does his part to steer us through this lunacy, because he is just so, well, earnest.
Chadwyk Collins is impressively committed to his reading of Gavin, whose fashion sense, along with Algy's and others, should attract a raid by the fashion police. Jody Mullen sweetly and foolishly dashes about the stage as Cecil, and when he and Gavin discover that they are to be married (yes, married) to what appears to be the same man, their confrontation is hilarious.
Bill Epstein delivers the butchest Lady Bracknell you will ever see. (At least this is our fervent hope.) And although he's a bit inconsistent in character and memory, he is a sight for sore eyes and, truth to tell, a wee bit scary. Miss Prism, as sweet as he/she can be, has Cliff Madison hilariously decked out in a cotton sundress, tight blond curls and—no. You have to see this for yourself. Danielle Dryer as Token Dyke and Jay C. Cotner as Canon Chausable round out this Wilde bunch.
So is this great theater? No way. Is it a bit of fun? You betcha.
Most fortunately, Wilde's wonderful words shine through this spirited silliness. His language is the real star of the evening, and to their great credit, the cast members know it. In the midst of outlandish shenanigans, they handle Wilde's saucy and sophisticated style with impressive agility. We can't help but be smitten again and again by Wilde's incisive wit and wordplay.
Wilde's own sexual exploits and appetites are well-documented. We shouldn't worry whether he is smiling down—or up—at Etcetera's bold venture. While the gang strives to convince us of the importance of being earnest, they actually make a much stronger case for something entirely different: They prove that it was our good fortune that Oscar was born to be Wilde.