- The Importance of Being Earnest, and: Travesties
Pairing The Importance of Being Earnestand Travestiestantalizes the literate theatergoer and theatre artist alike. Part of the pleasure of Stoppard's travesty of Great War literary, artistic, and political history stems from the explosive absurdity of Wildean paradox and wit in the text. Then there's The Importance of Being Earnestitself: to return to this sublime confection and its play of surface and depth, not to mention its exuberance, makes contemporary comedy seem not only dreary, but without philosophy. Last season Charles Newell, Artistic Director of Chicago's classics-focused Court Theatre, paired a tenth-anniversary revival of his famously successful 1995 Travestieswith a new staging of Earnest. Newell positioned the two productions to speak to each other, using the same cast for both shows, and staging parallel sequences in each show. The pairing revealed a great deal about the distinct forms of theatricality at work in the two plays, though as in many experiments, not all of its elements achieved equal success.
Newell's casting of the productions' main characters opened up new ways to see both plays. Lance Stuart Baker, for instance, does not conform to the usual image of a whippet-thin, silver-tongued, and suave Algernon. With his fleshy face, gravelly voice, and deep under-eye circles, Baker possesses an unsettling stage presence, bringing a youthful menace to Algernon that proved a fascinating and revealing choice. Baker's Algernon slyly commented to the audience with every move, tossing out sidelong glances, pausing slightly before delivering lines, and finding unusual and telling emphasis for words. His performance also showed Algernon deftly hanging on Cecily's every word, amazed to find himself serious about his love for her. Baker's attributes proved an even more natural fit for the role of Carr in Travesties. Algernon seemed a precursor to this character, a sense reiterated by Baker repeating blocking patterns or stage positions he had held in Earnest. With long monologues directly to the audience, Baker-as-Carr even more fully registered ironic commentary and his slyness suited the script's portrayal of Carr's self-aggrandizement.
In contrast to Baker's youthful, dark interpretation, Cristen Paige as Cecily combined brightness with maturity. Though every bit as bright, blonde, [End Page 356]and tiny as an ingénue can be, Paige is older than Cecily would usually be cast. This had beneficial effects on Earnest—Paige's Cecily was daffy, willful, and befuddled, but never blank or incidental—and also worked well for Travesties. Stoppard's invented and misremembered Cecily in Travestiesdeepened in Paige's interpretation. Paige portrayed a woman playing by the same feminine rules that bound Wilde's character, but also a woman with pointed insight and a will to power. The choice provoked a reassessment of Wilde's Cecily, who in Paige's interpretation also had a will of steel. Whether at tea in the garden or in the library, in both shows Cecily seemed mistress over rituals of elaborate politeness that masked more complicated motives.
Though Newell's double casting produced some revelations, other aspects of the pairing seemed less thought out. The entire project of putting these two plays in conversation proved a hymn to consciousness of and pleasure in theatricality—the ability to be this and that, to be here and there, to be true and false in the same moment. But where Earnestreveled in the delight of theatricality, and incorporated references to melodramatic conventions like live underscoring and posed tableaux as a means of thinking about the theatricality of Wilde's time period, Newell's Travestiesseemed strangely contained. Travesties,of course, is on its own a doubled script that contends with the paradoxes of theatricality as negotiated by the philosophies of modernist art and the practices of the historical avant garde. But Newell's production claimed no particular space for that set of inquiries. He presented Stoppard's set-pieces (a striptease...