An Earnest Attempt To Update ‘The Importance Of Being Earnest’

The Lake Worth Playhouse is at it again with a production of the 126-year-old Oscar Wilde classic The Importance Of Being Earnest. Director Daimien Matherson has put a modern spin on the famous farce by setting the production in today’s South Florida rather than 1890s London and by casting a non-binary female-presenting performer as protagonist Jack “Ernest” Worthing. 

In theory, at least, it’s a concept with potential, considering that the play revolves around the character’s double life Mr. Worthing leads as he assumes the identity of the upstanding Jack in the country, where he must set a responsible example for his young ward Cecily, while frequently stealing away to the city, ostensibly to check on his rascal of younger brother, Ernest. 

Of course, there is no actual brother Ernest, with Ernest instead being the name that Jack goes by in the city to avoid any association between his downtown escapades and his more upstanding country identity, a practice that Jack’s close confidante Algernon refers to as “Bunburying” after his own imaginary relation.

But while slight alterations to the script attempt to indicate a scenario in which gender is a part of this clever ruse, with Jack referred to as “Miss” Worthing but brother Ernest remaining a him, the idea more or less stops there, which it makes it difficult to extrapolate any sense of coherence from the change. 

Sure, letting the talented Victoria Bloyer take a crack at a traditionally male role like Jack is to be applauded; but, rather than halfheartedly attempt to integrate the non-traditional casting into the script, the show might have fared better if it simply didn’t attempt to comment on it, as it didn’t comment on the casting of an actress who isn’t exactly a traditional ingenue type as Gwendolyn or a black actor as Algernon. 

Likewise, while a few of the jokes thrown in at the expense of the residents of Boca, Palm Beach, and Lake Worth stand—I remember one memorable crack about a “Karen”— mostly they just feel out of place in the play’s otherwise obviously 19th century social landscape. 

Almost equally incoherent is this production’s portrayal of Algernon Moncrieff. Actor Ricky Morisseau is costumed in a silken robe and pink feather boa and plays the character in an obviously flamboyant manner. 

Morriseau is up to the task, garnering plenty of laughs in the process; but however humorous this portrayal, any progressive implications of Algernon being queer-coded are erased when the character ends up, as in the original, in an altogether heterosexual relationship with Jack’s ward Cecily. 

I also noticed that the only queer couple that the updated narrative does allow is the only couple who doesn’t get a kiss at the play’s conclusion, though whether that decision was made for the audience’s comfort or the performers’ I can only guess. 

Luckily, though, the script of The Importance of Being Earnest itself still stands the test of time, and most of the original comedy is unaltered by the surface level alterations, and a few excellently timed physical gags only add to the lively proceedings. A solid cast also enhances the evening; besides Morisseau and Bloyer as the play’s central rogues, Nicole Hulett stands out as a mannered Lady Bracknell and Rowan Pelfrey makes a strong impression as Cecily. 

A few other original touches are scattered throughout the proceedings; for instance, during one of the show’s set changes, we are treated to a mildly amusing mindfulness meditation session with Miss Prism, and, after their ruse is exposed, Jack and Algernon attempt to woo their respective love interests with an original song, which, again, is at least truly funny and winningly delivered, if also out of step with the script’s otherwise 19th century sensibilities. 

Perhaps, if the Lake Worth Playhouse really wanted to break with tradition, it would go so far as to choose a play that has actual queer themes rather than try to shoehorn them into a piece that doesn’t really call for such overhauling. On the other hand, it’s clear that Matherson is at least trying to break with the status quo within the confines of the traditional title, and trying quite earnestly at that.

In any case, the experiment is a funny and fun-filled endeavor that perhaps focusing on the mechanics and minutiae is beside the point. If you’d like to get a glimpse of his vision for yourself, the production will be playing there for two more weekends, until this November 28th!

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