I'm all for fresh takes on the classics.
If you can bring something new and illuminating to Antigone by setting it in World War I, have at it. If you can take Death of a Salesman, and by setting it in present-day Detroit discover something we have heretofore overlooked, go for it. If you think you can plumb new depths by restyling Shakespeare's As You Like It as though it were a piece of Kabuki theater, then be my guest.
But you better make damn sure it works.
Arizona Theatre Company has opened its season with what has been touted as a "fresh" take on Oscar Wilde's perennially popular The Importance of Being Earnest. The play is about as perfect as a comedy of manners could be. Wilde's wonderfully drawn characters; his playful, clever and wicked use of language; and his satiric spin on late Victorian English culture have endured as one of the most produced English-language plays, in spite of its abbreviated run when it was first produced in London in 1895.
Indeed, there are some fresh and sassy elements in director Stephen Wrentmore's version of Wilde's most revered play. But there are also some pretty big missteps in his search for New and Different that call to mind the term "lead balloon." Although there is surely enough of the wonder of Wilde to set this vessel aloft, the flight is almost grounded by the leaden nature of some woefully misguided choices.
It was Wilde's intention to write an artful piece of whimsy, with no particular meaning or moral. This was in keeping with his ideal of aestheticism, a school of thought that asserted, contrary to widely held views of the day, that art did not exist to influence the public good. Essentially, it's the art for art's sake thing. In fact, the subtitle of Earnest is "A Trivial Play for Serious People." It is satiric, but its satire is the byproduct of a bright, witty, well-put-together story in which Wilde creates charmingly languid characters of dubious identity, bound up in a most improbable story told in deliciously devilish dialogue.
Wrentmore and his cast preserve the splendid eloquence of Wilde's language and wickedly convoluted story. London-based Algernon (Matt Leisy) hangs with his friend Jack (Loren Dunn), who has claimed to his relations on his rural estate that he has a reprobate brother, Ernest, in London, whom he must continually bail out of trouble. This allows him to escape the country when he desires more lively activity. While in London he has become smitten with the lovely Gwendolen (Anneliese Van Der Pol), who is attracted to him chiefly because his name is Ernest, which, of course, it is not. She is the daughter of the imposing Lady Bracknell (Allyce Beasley), who frowns upon the idea of marriage because Jack/Ernest has no identifiable lineage. When Algernon finds that Jack/Ernest has a young charge named Cicely (Heather Marie Cox), he drops in unannounced at the rural estate, claiming to be Ernest, Jack's "brother" from London, and woos Cicely, who is attracted to him because his name is Ernest—which, of course, it isn't. It's all a charming mess, especially when Gwendolen appears, but it all gets sorted out in clever, ridiculous hilarity.
Wrentmore and set designer Yoon Bae (who also designed the fabulous costumes) create a much less stuffy environment for the story than one often sees in productions of Earnest. Algernon's drawing room in London is no Victorian heavy-with-wood-and-tapestries setup. It's a chiefly monochromatic, deco-inspired, airy great room that is absolutely consistent with the Algernon that Leisy creates, which is also a departure from how we often see Algernon portrayed. Leisy's Algy is a flamboyant, overdressed, high-class rascal, flashy but not effeminate, quick of wit and ready to pounce on any opportunity to cause a bit of good-natured trouble. It's a refreshing take on the character.
Dunn does a fine job as Jack, countering Algernon's flashiness with more substance, and they play well with each other. Van Der Pol's Gwendolen is wonderful, a smart, high-spirited woman who is not above stepping outside expected boundaries to get what she wants. Cox's Cicely is a precocious and impetuous, mostly sweet young lady who can mix it up when necessary, and the scene in which she and Gwendolen share tea is comically rich. (Although, the high-pitched voices that both of these actors find for their characters make the scene sound like conversation between a couple of Minnie Mouse impersonators. Ouch.)
So far, so good. Then there's Lady Bracknell. This is one of the richest women's roles in dramatic literature. It has been played by the likes of Edith Evans, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright. Bracknell has also been portrayed by men, most famously of late by Brian Bedford, who was nominated for a Tony Award in 2011. Bracknell is described by a character as a "gorgon." She's imperious, self-righteous and used to getting her way. There are myriad ways an actor can embody these qualities. But the character we see onstage at ATC is a complete mystery to me. I think the choice to go this way—and I'm not even sure how to describe what "this way" is—was conscious. But trying a new spin is risky, and this attempt falls flat. If nothing else, when Bracknell enters the stage, she should fill it. When Beasley, who is a well-respected and practiced actor, enters, all the energy flees the room. Oh my.
There are a couple of other turns imposed by Wrentmore that don't really work, and feel really un-Earnest-y, but even so, the sheer fun and fancy of Wilde's creation cannot be totally dampened. Fresh looks by a director can often yield surprising results, but it would be wise for those looking anew at Wilde's wonderful play to remember that whatever the new spin, it's important that it be true to Earnest.