Fresh Eyes on EARNEST, 5th Installment
The Importance of Being Earnest is opening this Saturday, May 20th. The week leading up to opening night is a combination of afternoon rehearsals and evening preview performances, all focused on ironing out the last wrinkles, fine tuning cues, and learning where the laughs may come. In comedy, timing is everything, so knowing where the laughs are is critical to the actors' performances and audience's enjoyment. Sometimes in previews, unexpected things happen and the show has to stop for a moment (see Brennan's notes on the Wednesday night preview). And often, previews are when it all comes magically together, which makes perfect sense when you know that the audience is last, most important ingredient.
If you attend previews, you may notice people in the audience with laptops or phones, tapping away during the show: that's us: designers, directors, dramaturgs, all making notes of things that need attention before the show can open. We try to be as unobtrusive as possible, but the work continues right up to opening night. This week, our two excellent Fresh Eyes volunteers, Anthony Hudson and Brennan Randel, were also in the audience recording their observations, shared below.
I'm sitting next to Michael at the top of theatre as the audience enters. Michael, stationed with a yellow legal pad and a glowing blue book light, is checking in with other audience members as they begin to sit nearby. He's politely issuing warnings that as director of the show he'll be taking notes throughout this first preview and potentially creating a distraction, and if they'd like to move there's alternate seats awaiting them via the box office. Nobody takes him up on it, and I'll soon realize that all of us near him have the best seat in the house.
"How are you feeling?" I ask him as he watches this first audience pour in, his mouth agape, dumbfounded by their sheer number.
"Oh, god, I'm so nervous," he says. "We spent all day working the transitions. It's all there. But this cast needs an audience." That's why previews happen - to see what works, what doesn't, what needs adjusting. After working the show for a month with the same audience of cast and crew members, it's the first real opportunity to run the show by truly fresh eyes (beyond mine) and simultaneously push it into existence. Will the baby bird fly or fall? I wonder how the audience will react - will they listen to Wilde's words? Will they realize how fresh and hilarious the play is despite its age?
The lights come down and, despite Michael's nerves, Earnest happens.
And the audience loves it.
There's laughter. Lots of it. This is a smart audience. They get the jokes Wilde's written, but the lines aren't enough to sell it - after all, these lines must be successfully delivered by actors. At one point - namely a contested interaction between Cecily and Gwendolen - the audience becomes a pressure chamber of successive squeals at the masterclass of unspoken comedy and physical gags between two actors, all pushed over the edge by Wilde's writing. At the height of the scene, a man in front of us bows over laughing hoarsely, and Michael beams at me with a glint in his eye and the biggest smile on his face. This is the face of a very proud father. I smile back at him and together we go back to giddily hyperventilating with the rest of the audience.
Throughout Michael takes reams of notes - only five pages before intermission, he points out - and his head moves rhythmically with the lines as they're spoken by the actors. His hands pop up a lot and his fingers dance in the air happily like an excitable fairy godmother in a cartoon every time something goes over just right, which is often. By the end, many members of the audience offer a standing ovation, and Michael cheers while clapping as loud as humanly possible for his actors.
As for me? I can't wait to see it again. I can't wait to see what changes between now and opening night in a few days - and it can only get better. The play's good (between you and me, it's actually pretty great) but with three more previews and all those little matters of timing, spacing, and fine tuning applied, this show may be just as marvelous as Wilde's wit. Everything is there - the script, the direction, the set, the costuming, and eight actors at the absolute top of their game. Wilde's words alone are reason to see this show, but the real star is this stellar cast. So much so that I find myself conflicted about my own profession and its history with this play.
As a drag queen I'm ironically enraged that Lady Bracknell tends to be played by men in drag. Perhaps drag amplifies the absurdity and the awfulness of her character, but at the same time it's denying women actors the opportunity to play such a spectacular role. Are women not seen as funny enough to play her? Linda Alper certainly proves they are. In fact, all these actors are masters of comedy, and this show is singularly important in combating the current Men's Rights pseudo-philosophical debate around whether or not women are funny as pertaining to gender-bent remakes of popular comedies, a vastly female-led SNL cast, and the very existence of Amy Schumer.
Talking about this show later that night with my boyfriend, I find myself thinking of Maureen Dowd's book "Are Men Necessary?" Now, as a terrible and predictable millennial queer person (as I pointed out at the onset of this series) I haven't read that book, but the title, as it is designed to do, gives me pause - and I think this production answers Dowd's question with a resounding "as it turns out, no." As the programmer of a horror film series and a horror fan in general (as well as your friendly neighborhood militant feminist) I've been awe-struck by the work of women directors in horror. All the best genre work over the last few years - Honeymoon, The Babadook, The Invitation, The Lure, Raw - have come from women, and this has led to me drunkenly (and soberly) professing many times that only women should be allowed to make films anymore. And after Earnest I'm convinced that only women should be allowed to act. Men have had their time, all 10,000 years of it. And I'm not calling for the blacklisting or censorship or decimation of half of the human race, but... this play makes one hell of an argument for it.
Earnest is woman. Hear her roar.
And then hear the roars of laughter that follow.
As I take my seat I notice the set, and wow, this one is really something to behold. I imagine that many of these patterns would be cast by the gingerbread shadows on a Victorian mansion and it is just breathtaking. The black and white color scheme gives an almost tuxedo formality to it while the music in the background is a playful Vaudvillian tune (I look forward to our season tickets where I can hear the words to the songs, I always hear the music and then the words).
It’s preview night and the sky is falling. As the lights go down and the chandelier begins to drop comically something fell from the ceiling forcing a quick re set of the opening scene. This was one of the greatest openings ever, getting to see Sarah assume her character twice was funny and brilliant, but her frozen face, starched, stuffiness as the ‘City’ Butler in Act I had me snickering in my seat so much that I was afraid of annoying audience members nearby. In Act II her ‘Country’ Butler was whimsically comical. Sneaking tidbits of tea muffins, and quietly slinking away before cat fights between other characters were some great visual reliefs to the rest of the Peacock show that surrounds. Enter Algernon, whose look, carriage, and confidence gives him the air of a mid-twenties law student (you know the ones who are just too smart for their own good so they end up in trouble…), but what an outfit; especially the vest and tie. Paralleling such icons as Vida Boeme (To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar), Algernon and Jack exude this awesome confidence with gentleness, grace, and gentlemanly politeness, it fills the room and is subconsciously comforting even though early in we discover that they are young flippant troublemakers, who are good at what they do, and from that revelation the rest of the play gets quite entertaining. Lady Bracknell, like the butler, had me ready to burst! I think her persona echoes much comical study of aristocracy, and the ‘I’m above it all’ attitude is too perfectly funny and fitting for the setting. Her performance was masterful and I can’t wait to see some of the faces she pulls, in some reactions, from a different angle. Gwendolyn and Cecily together create a dizzying whirlwind of two individual truths. The catfight of assumptions had me burst laughing, and I hope it wasn’t inappropriate in the theatre, but that scene was majestic to see two beautifully caped matadors bull fighting and dancing with their words. The swords and cat claws really fly when Gwendolyn realizes that her wit can be matched by ‘a plain country girl,’ but Cecily being equally witted certainly gives as good as she gets. This catty competitiveness quickly turns to jilted anger followed by a twisted social sisterhood and much like high school cliques these states transition seamlessly for our two love seeking ladies. Miss. Prism and Rev. Chausible were two very cute characters, they reminded me of older folks finding their second loves in life. These two characters provide a balance to each other and are the most obviously oppositely attracted couple in the play.
The costuming provided some nice subtle ties between characters. The matching of pinks in Algernon’s tie and Cecily’s bow, the matched country comfortable plaid of Dr. Chausible and Miss Prism, and the tiny vest accents and bow of Jack and Gwendolyn were just a few common threads that I noticed in this viewing. Lady Bracknell’s character may not have been tied to any other on stage but her costumes were certainly fitting for the large, fluffy, over the top, controlling aristocrat that was portrayed. That specific purple was somewhat unfortunate as it is very reminiscent of a TV Show dinosaur which had me cracking up internally! I will have to watch more closely for lighting cues when we see the show in a few weeks. Kristeen did such a good job with lighting transitions that I had a hard time telling when they happened (I guess that’s the whole point though).
Mentioned in the program this play is touted as fluff, and I mildly disagree. This production may not blatantly tackle political or cultural issues, but I heard the whole house huff with the line, “Health is the responsibility of life” (maybe taking even the slightest jab at healthcare will plant seeds). One other notice I took from my fellow audience members was the mumbles at the mention of education not working. Casting women as men speaks to the societal perceptions and will help to change the schema as the conversations of gender identity continues to evolve. I hope possibly being the first to have an all-female cast provides some good publicity and press for ART. It is certainly well deserved. My thanks to the ART family for letting me be part of the Fresh Eyes Program; I always enjoy getting to see the layers of a production peeled away, it is one of the best privileges I can have as a patron.