The Importance of Being Earnest was Oscar Wilde’s last play before he was convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years’ hard labor for violating England’s anti-gay laws. The 1895 script uses wit and wordplay to skewer class, gender roles, society’s trivial pursuits and plenty of other targets, and 120 years after its creation, Earnest serves up still-potent satire.
At Fort Lauderdale’s Thinking Cap Theatre, artistic director Nicole Stodard has found a fresh way to come at Wilde’s play, setting Earnest in disco-era New York and further underscoring Wilde’s themes with her bold casting choices.
In this version, John “Jack” Worthing is played by a woman (Elizabeth Price), heiress Cecily Cardew is played by a man (Noah Levine), and Lady Augusta Bracknell (Karen Stephens) is a disco-chic diva who would have given Donna Summer a run for her money. Cecily’s governess Miss Prism (Johnnie Bowls) is a glam-to-the-max drag queen, and clergyman Dr. Chasuble (Jim Gibbons) looks ready for fun in a leather bar.
In terms of language, Wilde’s many gems have been left uncut and sparkling, as when Lady Bracknell remarks to the orphaned Jack, “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” The societal divide between behavior in the city and the country is changed to uptown, where Jack’s self-absorbed pal Algernon Moncrieff (Clay Cartland) lives, and downtown, where Cecily and Miss Prism reign.
Thinking Cap’s production is really a kind of 2-for-1 Earnest, Wilde’s play wrapped in an imaginative take on club culture circa 1978. Stodard, who doubles as costume designer, and her team — set designer Alyiece Moretto, lighting designer Preston Bircher, sound designer David Hart (with Stodard), choreographer Kevin Black and dramaturg Leah Roth Barsanti — have laced the show with pop culture touchstones.
At Algernon’s place, for example, anyone pressing the doorbell hears Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell (that song actually came out in ‘79, but it’s too delicious not to use). Algy himself, played with unbridled comic narcissism by the inventive Cartland, looks like Saturday Night Fever-era John Travolta.
When Levine’s Cecily, fetching in a filmy orange dress, and Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen Fairfax (Carey Brianna Hart, wearing the same dress in a pale yellow), meet and believe they’re both engaged to the same guy, Cecily strikes a Farrah Fawcett-in-Charlie’s Angels pose. The references are effective and funny, even as they remind us of the short shelf life of pop culture.
Stodard sets the play during the Christmas season, which allows for Moretto’s Deco-meets-disco set (and even the lobby of The Vanguard, where the play is being performed) to be dressed with trees (often silver, to match the myriad disco balls), garlands and the like. As the servant Merri, Emma Magner is done up like a cute Christmas elf — on roller skates.
The non-traditional casting adds an interesting undercurrent to the play’s two romances, as the Jack-Gwendolen pairing is played by two women and the Algernon-Cecily couple by two men. Hart is a charming, radiant Gwendolen, but Price has a tougher time selling her Jack, who’s more like an awkward imitation of Travolta in Grease. Levine and Cartland, however, strike comic gold whenever they’re bringing their romance (preplanned by Cecily) to life.
The glamorous Stephens has a meaty role worthy of her talents in the domineering Lady Bracknell, breaking into Summer-style song for emphasis. Bowls is striking and physically imposing as Miss Prism, but he needs to remember not to rush his lines. Playing two roles, Gibbons effectively differentiates Algy’s manservant Lane (a proper man in a proper suit) from the provocative and slightly menacing Dr. Chasuble.
A true-to-the-original, straightforward production of The Importance of Being Earnest still makes for a fine, amusing, thought-provoking theater experience. Thinking Cap’s Earnest does that too — and at its best, it’s crazy fun.
If you go
What: ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde.
Where: Thinking Cap Theatre production at The Vanguard, 1501 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday (no Thanksgiving performance), through Dec. 13.
Information: 813-220-1546 or www.thinkingcaptheatre.com.