Oscar Wilde would take Pride in Strawdog’s adaptation of “Earnest”

Photo by Jenn Udoni

Surely among the most significant openly gay men in the 19th Century (and for that matter all of history), Oscar Wilde would be thrilled that his brilliant comedy The Importance of Being Earnest is now receiving the fully queer production that it has always deserved by Strawdog Theatre and adapter/director Elizabeth Swanson. (Dusty Brown co-adapted the script.) He would also be quite justifiably proud of his 1894 play’s versatility and its (basically amazing) ability to appeal to audiences 130 years later. (Think about it: other than Shakespeare and maybe Shaw, can you even think of another English-language playwright from long ago whose comedies can still make us laugh out loud? Comedy depends as much on context as it does on cleverness, and Wilde’s wit has a universality that transcends its time period.)

Swanson and Brown have done an admirable job of adapting and updating the play. (Modern references include Drag Race and “guncle,” and there are lots of Chicago and midwestern references.) Strawdog casting director Karissa Murrell Myers, who must have had a field day with this show, built a strong cast that brings Wilde’s unique wit as well as his sexuality to the forefront. Characters such as Algernon have always been coded gay and Lady Bracknell has often been cast with men, including Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, but here the subtlety is ripped away in favor of a total queer romp. Starting with the preshow stage setting by Matt Keeley as the (gay) butler Merriman, this production is wonderfully over the top with tributes to its creator’s sexuality, which ultimately landed him in jail in an era in which being gay was against the law.

Here, Lord/Lady Bracknell (the gender markers shift almost randomly throughout the play) is portrayed by Michael Reyes. He may eschew overt drag, but his performance leaves no doubt from the start about the character’s sexuality, while brilliantly capturing Bracknell’s pure officiousness, commanding presence, and situationally mercurial character. Bracknell is the uncle/aunt of Jack Seijo’s wonderfully drawn Algernon, whose inherent queer coding is front and center without detracting from his romantic pursuit of Andi Muriel’s sweet/sexy Cecily. Jack Worthing, Cecily’s guardian, is played by Johnard Washington as Algy’s (more or less) straight friend who shares a secret with him: both men are, in Algernon’s words, secret “Bunburyists”; that is, they have concocted imaginary relatives or friends whose illnesses or other issues provide them freedom to travel and enjoy themselves, missing social engagements with impunity.

Jack’s love is Gwendolyn, here played by Kade Cox in Rain Foiles’ costuming that feels like punk drag. (They first appear in an audacious teal wig with a mustache, everything about them making a statement. Foiles’ costuming is amazing throughout.) Cox perfectly invokes Gwendolyn’s neediness as well as her own capricious personality (as evidenced by a wonderfully rendered antagonism with newfound “sister” Cecily that Wilde wrote to be as tightly bound by “propriety” as humanly possible: the most “polite” fight ever, with all of its incendiary remarks carefully clouded by seemingly innocent phrasing). Rounding out the cast are Lynne Baker’s flighty, new age-y Miss Prism and Crystal Claros’s fun and flirty Dr. Chasuble, both actors wringing every laugh possible from these important but rather under-written characters, as Keeley does with the (seriously under-written) butler.

Wilde wrote this play to have mainstream appeal and, though this queer adaptation adds a layer of outrageousness, the sparkle of his wit shines through in almost every line. Swanson’s crisp go-for-broke direction doesn’t miss a trick, from chases around furniture to spit takes to whatever she can do to evoke queer double entendre, and it all works. There is even a rainbow flag outside Jack’s country home (a beautifully drawn backdrop by scenic designer Manuel Ortiz), a visual reminder (as if we needed one) of the production’s unadulterated and joyful gayness. I’ve seen a lot of Earnests, but this one will live in my memory for a long time. It is about as gay as it can be, and Oscar Wilde would definitely take pride in that.

The Importance of Being Earnest is presented by Strawdog Theatre and is now playing at Rivendell Theatre, 5775 N. Ridge Ave, Chicago, until June 30. Performance times vary; check the Strawdog website. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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