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.