It’s the blurring of traditional gender roles with non-conformative ones; it’s the cognitive dissonance that accompanies men acting as women and women as men; it’s the reversal of sex and sexuality in a play written by one of literature’s most eccentric, controversial homosexuals. It’s a case of mistaken identity.
As written, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a comedy masked in layers. Written by Oscar Wilde and published in 1895, the play centers around relationships, specifically, the relationships of two men and women who fall in love over the course of the play. But of course, simplicity is not an option in a Wildian world or in a comedy, and as these two men, Jack and Algernon, pursue courtship, they digress into a web of lies tied together by the name “Earnest” — the man they’re both pretending to be.
Apparently, according to Wilde, women prefer a man named Earnest; it’s the predominant aspect we look for in a man. As confusion arises over the course of the written play and the men’s lies devolve into chaos, their façade is mercifully put to an end. But in a campus production from the Rude Mechanicals, a key aspect of the facade persists through the cast.
Opening Thursday, Rude Mechanical’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” features an all-female cast with the exception of one boy, who will be playing Lady Bracknell, a role traditionally played by a man dressed in drag. A play that is already characterized by deceit, this feature adds an entirely new dimension to the dynamics of deception.
“It was an interesting season for the U-Prod mainstage. They had very male heavy casting, so we were trying to figure out how we could compensate for that in a show that has a decent sized male cast,” School of Music, Theater and Dance junior Elle Smith. “My assistant director and I were brainstorming and trying to figure out how we compensate for that. We had this idea, that originally wasn’t anything we were ever expecting to do, but then thought, ‘An all-female production of Earnest? That could totally work.’ And then we realized that it really could work.”
Taking place in post-war Britain during the 1950s, in this adaptation not only will the men be played by women; there won’t be men at all — the traditional characters are revisioned as women disguising themselves as men in an attempt to come to terms with both the spheres of separation instilled in the 1950s home, as well as the spectrum upon which their sexuality lies.
“During the 1950s and coming off of World War II, there were more women in the workforce, so we’s picturing Jack and Algernon and their female identities as they would have been involved in that,” Smith said. “But then, “Oh, the men are back from war’ and they lose all this independence they had during the war time, so they create these two male alter egos that they wouldn’t have been able to have as women.”
All of this — the elaborate analysis of these women, their sexuality and their places in a post-war society — exist under the umbrella of the original play’s script. Nothing has been verbally changed to accommodate this drastic creative interpretation of the play. Through the careful emphasis on certain pronouns and pointed stage direction, the goal of conveying these women’s stories is achieved, and at no cost to the central theme of love.
“We’ve been playing with this idea that the character Jack is a lesbian, and the only way she can work through her sexuality is by pretending to be a man,” Smith said. “Whereas Algernon, who is essentially Wilde inserted into the play, loves everything and does everything and lives this life of complete pleasure and finds herself caught off guard by Cecily and surprised by falling in love with her.”
As the first of two shows put on by Rude Mechanicals this year, “The Importance of Being Earnest” opens their 20th anniversary season. Rude is re-solidifying its place on campus under the leadership of producers Lindsay Harkins, a SMTD senior studying performance arts management, and Violet Kelly-Andrews, a SMTD junior in the same program.
“It’s mostly about us trying to give Rude more credibility now by continuing producers. Because it’s student-run theater, it’s really just about opportunity and experiences for students,” Kelly-Andrews said. “People don’t know about Rude Mechanicals yet though because it has only just been raised from the dead.”
“Earnest” appears to be a strong promise from Rude Mechanical’s resurrection. Broaching sexuality and gender as accepted in 2016 and placing it in the 1950s with a script from the 1890s brings “an interesting mix of ideals from different generations that actually work really well together” Smith said, while also adding to the continuous layers that envelop this production.
And although Rude has only recently been revived, as an underdog it has room to grow, along with a vast community of students in and outside of SMTD who audition for shows.
“We’re definitely the underdog but that’s what makes it exciting,” Violet said. “The payoff is so much more worth it. When we accomplish something it’s a huge accomplishment, and it’s an amazing to feel like you’re working on something that’s brand new but also been around for a while.”
Just like the play itself, Rude Mechanical exists within the curious paradox of old and new, having both a sense of freshness and youth, while also holding a certain legacy. But this paradox plays to their advantage, for as Smith’s direction of “Earnest” demonstrates, any limitations can be handled — and handled in style.
There’s an underlying sense that Wilde would approve of the direction his beloved play has taken in this production, for as Algernon exclaims in one of his Wildian epitaphs, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”