I read and reviewed The Importance of Being Earnest about six years ago. It is definitely one of my favorite plays. However, I hand never had the chance to see it live. And then, I had two chances. I decided (because of a crazy music schedule) that I probably was not going to fit in a trip to San Diego to see it at The Old Globe (although I’m sure that production will be fabulous), but that there was no reason I couldn’t see it here in Bakersfield when CSUB did its production.
CSUB took an interesting approach to this play by switching the genders. I personally find this to be a rather useful device - it is amazing how silly many things sound when said by or about the opposite gender. (This is a pretty good way to see if something is actually true - or just cultural baggage…) In making this switch, all the names were preserved. Thus, Algernon and Jack are women - but retain their names. And likewise for every character. Pronouns were changed to reflect the gender swap, however, as were references such as “young man.” Costumes were period accurate, and were suited to the swapped genders - so big dresses for Jack and Algernon, dapper hats and suits for Gwendolyn and Cecily.
In this case, the idea of two young women acting as frivolous and rakish as Jack and Algernon is pretty revealing. If you combine it with the stereotype that young women must be pure and faithful, the whole edifice crumbles when reversed. Likewise, the lines about beauty are hilarious when applied to the pretty young men that Gwendolyn and Cecily become. Oscar Wilde was already pushing back against those gender assumptions with the play - so gender swapping both accentuates his point, and works against it in other ways.
Some lines in particular were hilarious coming from the other gender.
"Gwendolyn, it is a terrible thing for a [wo]man to find out suddenly that all his life [s]he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me? "
"I can. For I feel that you are sure to change."
Or the scenes in which Algernon keeps eating.
JACK: How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can't make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.
ALGERNON: Well, I can't eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.
JACK: I say it's perfectly heartless your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances. ALGERNON: When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as any one who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins.
We took the kids to this one, and reviews were mostly positive. Certainly my teen daughters understood the wit and laughed throughout. My boys loved it as well. My littlest (age 7) was a bit confused by the plot, and we had to catch her up during the breaks between the acts. She got some of it, but it was a bit over her head. However, she did love the fact that there was no curtain, so she got to see all the set changes.
Several of the cast were familiar from recent CSUB productions. Susannah Vera (Jack) was in Pippin, while Taylor Clark (Algernon) and Garrett Willis (Gwendolyn) played the lead roles in The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Phoebe Pyne (Rev. Chausuble) also had a key role in Nightingale. Vera and Clark had real chemistry - important in this play, as their relationship is the center of the fun. Willis and Trenton Benet (Cecily) played up the silliness of stereotypical femininity. Anthony Salvador Jauregui III followed up his turn as Charlemagne in Pippin with an imperious turn in the role of Lord Bracknell.
Top: Phoebe Pyne (Rev. Chasuble), Jessica Sanchez (Lane), Bella Becerra (Merriman), Taylor Clark (Algernon)
Bottom: Anthony Salvador Jauregui III (Lord Bracknell), Trenton Benet (Cecily), Susannah Vera (Jack), Garrett Willis (Gwendolyn), Luis Velez (Mr. Prism)
Photo: CSUB publicity photo
Overall, the cast did a fine job - CSUB has a good theaterdepartment. The British accents weren’t bad: one of the faculty is a dialect coach.
Earnest runs this weekend and next. This is a good opportunity for locals to support our fine university and enjoy a witty comedy in the bargain.