You might not expect a man who has made a large part of his living dressed as women -- usually deranged or demented women, in plays with such titles as "Eunuchs of the Forbidden City" and "Isle of the Hermaphrodites" -- to be serious. But farce, as anyone who's done it well can tell you, is serious business. And Everett Quinton knows farce. Treat it merely as silly nonsense, he says, "and you're dead."

Quinton, 53 next month, started acting in farces when he was young. Eventually he began to direct them, too. His training ground was New York's notoriously irreverent and outrageous Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Now he's directing at Arena Stage, taking the helm of no less than "The Importance of Being Earnest" -- "the great-grandmother of all ridiculous theater," as he describes Oscar Wilde's masterpiece (it's just opened). He's taking it very seriously.

No, not seriously seriously. "Oh, gawd, no," Quinton says in the Brooklyn accent of his youth. "There's just so much spectacle in the play and I love it!" Rather, he's just trying to be extremely attentive to the acting and the directing -- the very soul of a production. "You" -- i.e., the actor -- "have to be honest. No matter how far-out things get, you've got to have an emotional center. If you don't, the play fails."

It's his job to make sure everyone onstage has said center, ideally all in proper relation to each other. If so, the characters -- and ultimately the play -- are anchored in some kind of human truth amid the dizzying chaos or misapprehension that the genre evokes. Result? Belly laughs. Guffaws. Sides split and ribs tickled.

You might well expect from someone like Quinton -- a short, compact man who once debated with himself whether he was "a drag queen who acts or an actor who dresses in drag" -- some kind of, well, Ridiculous-like approach to Wilde's satire of Victorian manners. A stage full of cross-gendered vampires, perhaps?

"You can't go at this play like you might others," Quinton says a little wistfully. "It stands up all on its own; it doesn't need any help. Besides, I'm not smart enough to do concept productions." His production, he says, is straightforward and traditional -- unlike, some might think, anything Quinton has done before, offstage or on.

Growing up in Brooklyn's Park Slope section, Quinton often stepped out of the shower, wrapped himself in a towel and pretended to be Bette Davis. "I thought I was nuts," he says. Call it his precognitive stage, which reached cognition around age 24, when he was walking along a Manhattan street one day and bumped into Charles Ludlam, whom he'd never met.

Ludlam had founded the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967 to perform his brand of theater. Which was, as he described it, "theater without the stink of art" -- a kind of vaudevillian collage of penny-dreadful histrionics, operatic themes and zany literary references. Ludlam's farces were also among the first in New York to address explicitly homosexual themes. At their best, his shows -- in which he also starred, typically in drag -- transcended parody and camp, achieving a sort of hilariously mind-bending sophistication.

Ludlam and Quinton, then a second-year theater student, became lovers. One night soon into their relationship, in the dressing room at Ridiculous, Quinton watched Ludlam getting made up for the death scene in "Camille," the latter's parody of the Dumas fils story, in which Ludlam was playing the title role. "I might be nuts," Quinton said he thought to himself, "but I think there's a place for me, and I think I've just found it."

Not long after, Ludlam was about to open his newest work, "Caprice," featuring, among other characters, "Babushka, the world's first live fashion model." Ludlam said to Quinton, "There's a part for you in here! You must take it!" Quinton made his stage debut as a ballerina, and he took to drag acting as easily as, well, a young man might wrap himself in a bath towel.

"You could tell he was untutored in acting, but many of us were," says Lola Pashalinski, a founding member of Ridiculous. "We all sort of learned on the job." With experience, she says, Quinton developed into a strong comic actor, particularly when he assumed the role of Camille's maid in a later revival of the Ludlam script. "He was just wonderful in that."

Pashalinski left the company in 1980 but often caught its shows. In one, Quinton was playing "this sort of fritzed-out son" to a crazy mother played by Mink Stole, perhaps best known for appearances in the films of John Waters. "Everett was just riotous," Pashalinski remembers.

In yet another, Quinton played a servant, and in one scene he helped the leading female character (Ludlam, of course) put on makeup. "Everett was so dexterous, so masterfully funny, he combined everything from Milton Berle antics to witty dialogue," Pashalinski says. "The two of them worked together so beautifully."

Then in 1984 came Ludlam's biggest success, "The Mystery of Irma Vep," a quick-change piece for two actors playing men, women and monsters, sometimes all in the same scene. Ludlam and Quinton won the hearts of critics and huge audiences with their split-second changes of costume and character in an uproarious sendup of bad melodrama.

With Ludlam, Quinton honed his stage skills and gifts, burnishing them with research into the styles of acting he might be satirizing at any given time. His very presence seemed poised to strike your funny bone.

"Charles once said there are actors who can play comedy, and then there are funny people," says Pashalinski. "You know, natural clowns like Lou Costello, Lucille Ball. Funny people. Everett is one of those."

Over a no-nonsense steak-and-potatoes dinner, Quinton, wearing khakis and a dark oxford shirt, looks about as unfunny as you can get. But it's just a look. "I'm really tired of seeing Shakespeare," he says in response to a question. "I think I may hate Shakespeare now. But maybe I hate it because I can't act it."

Still, he wouldn't mind taking a crack at Richard III. "He's fabulous!" Or Iago. "But if we're really being honest, it's Lady Macbeth."

And if he were to act in his own production of "The Importance of Being Earnest"?

"It would have to be Lady Bracknell," he says, referring to the overpowering matriarch who dominates the latter part of the play. Quinton dismisses his own mind as "illiterate. I only know one play by Ionesco, and I can't remember what it is." But he is a prodigious researcher of anything he is working on, as evidenced by his thoughts on the emotional center he'd use for Lady Bracknell.

"She's trying to protect her empire," he says. "She's trying to keep the lid on this construct of superiority." Wilde uses her as a stand-in for a society whose values and conventions he lampoons as morally questionable, if not cruelly absurd. As a result, Quinton then elaborates, Wilde made himself a threat to that society.

"The upper class had to get rid of Oscar Wilde the same way it had to get rid of Byron," he says.

Some of Ludlam's plays have a Wildean streak in them in that they use wit to skewer hypocrisy. Quinton has directed a number of Ludlam's plays; in fact he got his start in directing after Ludlam died of AIDS complications in 1984. Quinton took over running Ridiculous, staging some acclaimed revivals of Ludlam's plays.

In 1996, however, Ridiculous rang down its final curtain. "I couldn't take it anymore," Quinton says. "No matter how big a hit we had, we never had enough money. I just couldn't ask someone to do one more thing for free."

He directs and acts more or less equally now, and mostly across the country in -- to say the least -- diverse material. In 2000, for example, he directed a stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" in Omaha. Earlier this year he performed in Steve Martin's "The Underpants" in Tucson.

While he was in Tucson, Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith called him to see whether he'd be interested in directing "Importance."

"We had all been in a meeting talking about different potential directors for the play," Smith says. "I think [Associate Director] Wendy Goldberg said, 'What about Everett?' That's when the big light bulb flashed. I knew of his work with Ridiculous and had seen him numerous times over the last 20 years. I hadn't seen his directing, but I knew of his direction from other people who knew it and felt good about it. So I called him."

"It scared the hell out of me," Quinton says with a laugh, remembering Smith's invitation.

The play is, after all, easy only on the surface because it reads so effortlessly.

Any advice for those who might be thinking of trying it?

"As we used to say at Ridiculous, 'Every drag queen for herself.' "

"No matter how far out things get, you've got to have an emotional center," says Quinton of farce.Lynskey and Tymberlee Chanel receive direction from Everett Quinton during a recent rehearsal at Arena Stage.Something Wilde: Michael Skinner and Susan Lynskey in "Earnest."Quinton in 1994 as a transvestite movie buff in the Ridiculous Theatrical Company's "Movieland."