Scena stages 'Importance of Being Earnest' with men playing women and vice versa

Sara Barker, left, and Anne Nottage in
Sara Barker, left, and Anne Nottage in "The Importance of Being Earnest." (Art Sands)
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By Raymond M. Lane
Friday, July 30, 2010

"Consistency," playwright Oscar Wilde once said, "is the last refuge of the unimaginative."

Scena Theatre is taking that to heart, showing imagination in its interpretation of Wilde's classic farce "The Importance of Being Earnest": It's putting the men in dresses and the women in suits.

The company, now in its 22nd season, has set its gender flip-flop of the 1895 drawing-room comedy in 1920s London. The show turns on two beauties, Gwendolyn (played by Tyler Herman) and Cecily (John Robert Keena), lasses who insist on marrying men named Ernest, and two rakes, Jack Worthing (Anne Nottage) and Algernon Moncrieff (Sara Barker), who pretend to be named Ernest. Looming over everything is social vampire and class arbitress Lady Bracknell (Brian Hemmingsen).

For sure, there has been plenty of tinkering with Wilde's play: an all-male cast in Singapore, a nearly naked male ensemble at the Source, a musical version, puppet iterations, squadrons of one-person shows.

"Well, it's a comedy, and that can take you anywhere," says Scena's artistic director, Robert McNamara. "You're supposed to have fun with it, and let's face it, the world has changed since the show debuted 115 years ago."

And putting the actors in drag?

"We're just reversing the roles and seeing what emerges," says McNamara. "At a time when the District has legalized gay marriage, the 'tension' of women as men and men as women should hardly raise an eyebrow."

Barker, who plays Algernon, suggests an implicit societal change behind the gender switches.

"My husband would probably tell you that I'm a bully," Barker says with a laugh. "Wilde would probably die either of laughter or chagrin seeing women like me today."

The change is that among young people, "identity, whether sexual or social, is about openly choosing to be whoever they want to be," she adds, acknowledging the social straightjacket confining Wilde's female characters of more than a century ago.

"You hear the term 'metrosexual,' and it's clear that more young men are in touch with the feminine side of life -- whether changing diapers or buying drapes -- while women are free to claw their way through what had been a man's world, whether law school or changing a flat tire," Barker says.

On another level, Barker says she thinks audiences process a show differently when characters cross-dress. "Men often look ridiculous dressed as women, while women can look very smart, indeed, as a man."

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