A decade or so back, a stage production that bent the genders of that most delicious boy-chases-girl comedy, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” would have been laughable, but not just for Oscar Wilde’s witty dialogue. The idea that two pairs of guys would chase each other down for marriage in a 19th-century play? Interesting concept—and outlandish.
Fast forward to now, and to Mauckingbird Theatre Company’s current production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” in Center City. Here, buddies Algernon (James Ijames) and Jack (Chancellor Dean) still chase down Gwendolyn and Cecily with marriage in mind. But these objects of their affections are both guys (Brent Knobloch and David Hutchison). Not only that: A tutor, Miss Prism (Sarah Doherty), has more than a passing affection for the village pastor, Dr. Chasuble, in the play—and in this case, the pastor is a woman (Lindsay Mauck). And none of it seems far-fetched.
One thing more—Lady Bracknell, the dragon-lady doyenne who keeps all these people in line by the authority she generously grants herself, is played by a woman, Nancy Boykin, in this production. How refreshing, because it’s popular nowadays for otherwise traditional productions of “The Importance of Being Earnest” to cast a male in Lady Bracknell’s role, rendering her a long-suffering but very funny drag.
I couldn’t help wonder how Oscar Wilde, who wrote “Earnest,” would have reacted to Mauckingbird’s production by Peter Reynolds, artistic director of the company that refracts its productions through a gay lens. Wilde, who gave us this uncompromisingly straight and piquant exploration of Cupid’s playground in England’s high-class neighborhoods, paid dearly for being gay in his time in Britain; it led to a hard-labor prison term that silenced one of our language’s great playwrights.
And so there’s a bittersweet quality to this particular “Earnest,” but also a revelation: Doing the play this way nowadays makes perfect sense, at least as much as it does with the genders Wilde intended. I’m glad to report that in Reynolds’ adaptation, he’s changed references in the script to recognize the gender switches. All men on stage are called “he” and all women, “she,” and women who become “like sisters” in dialogue are now men who become “like brothers.”
Unfortunately, he didn’t take the ultimate leap: changing Gwendolyn and Cecily’s names. (Gwyn? Cicero?) Because he didn’t, the production operates in two different intellectual time zones. Whenever the names Gwendolyn and Cecily are spoken, instead of presenting something real that we can buy into, this version is playing what-if.
Even so, the gender changes give us some new laughs where there were none before, and they put a new face on the way the play gleefully mocks class and just about everything else. Some of these laughs also come from the line readings, especially from Ijames and Dean as the pursuers. But Hutchison, who plays his Cecily as more of an innocent than a coquette, and Knobloch, whose Gwendolyn has a forceful side, also get their due in a famous garden scene (Andrew Laine’s clever set) where the two characters use manners as masks until they just can’t anymore.
Boykin’s Lady Bracknell is the perfect contrast to all of this—she is the sleek, stylish (cool costumes by Marie Anne Chiment) adult supervision here, with all the good nature of a hanging judge. She’s the sort of woman whose mere presence demands deference, and when Boykin delivers some of Wilde’s most sanctimonious declarations, you can sense Lady Bracknell’s inner dog, baring its teeth.
In one of those lines, Lady Bracknell avers that “in matters of great importance, style—not sincerity—is the vital thing.” Mauckingbird’s reinterpretation of “Earnest” has plenty of the former and a nice helping of the latter, too._”The Importance of Being Earnest” runs through Aug. 25 at Off-Broad Street Theater, 1636 Sansom St. 215-923-8909 or www.mauckingbird.org.