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“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Strawdog Theatre

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“The Importance of Being Earnest,” Oscar Wilde’s popular farce that skewers Victorian manners, premiered in 1895 — just months before the Irish playwright was famously tried, convicted and imprisoned for homosexual acts. The UK government posthumously pardoned him, along with more than 50,000 gay men, in 2017. But for fans of Wilde, Strawdog Theatre’s exuberantly queer new adaptation of “Earnest” is perhaps an even more satisfying bit of justice.

Adapted by Dusty Brown and Elizabeth Swanson and directed by Swanson, this modern version reimagines all of the characters as part of the LGBTQ community. Set in Chicago’s Boystown and at a lake house in Michigan, Strawdog’s retelling focuses Wilde’s satirical wit on the social circles of wealthy Midwestern gays, personified in the delightfully snobbish Augustus Bracknell (Michael Reyes). Underlying the farcical hijinks of mistaken identities and lovers’ quarrels, the theme of found family lends a sweet note to this Pride Month production.

The play opens in the Boystown apartment of Algernon (Jack Seijo), where his friend “Ernest” (Johnard Washington) is visiting in hopes of proposing to Algernon’s cousin and Bracknell’s daughter, Gwendolen (Kade Cox). But first, Algernon demands that Ernest explain why he owns a watch engraved to “Uncle Jack” from “little Cecily.”

Ernest confesses that his real name is Jack, and he leads a double life. In Michigan, Jack is known as the responsible guardian of a late friend’s granddaughter, Cecily (Andi Muriel). Ernest is his fictional younger brother who provides a convenient excuse to escape to the city at any time. As it turns out, Algernon has a similar arrangement. Whenever he wants to get out of an obligation, he leaves the city to visit his fictional friend Bunbury, who always seems to be on the verge of death.

The setup for the farce is as follows: “Ernest” proposes to Gwendolen, who enthusiastically accepts, but Bracknell refuses to approve the match after finding out that he was a foundling abandoned in a tote bag in Ogilvie Station. Meanwhile, Algernon makes his way to Michigan to woo Cecily, a 26-year-old who lives with her life doula, Miss Prism (Lynne Baker), and journals about her vividly imagined romantic life. Algernon introduces himself as Jack’s brother, Ernest, leading to an increasingly absurd tangle of misunderstandings when Jack, Gwendolen and Bracknell later arrive at the lake house.

The language of Brown and Swanson’s adaptation retains much of Wilde’s style and his more famous lines, while sprinkling in modern terms such as guncle, baby gay and daddy (in the Urban Dictionary sense). This is a hyperlocal version, with references to Ainslie Street (“the unfashionable side” of Andersonville, Bracknell shudders) and the gay bar Big Chicks (“What am I, 40?” Algernon protests). The show also sends up the wellness lifestyle through the character of Miss Prism, a bespectacled hippie who reminds Cecily to repeat her daily affirmations while clutching a book by Glennon Doyle.

The cast is still working out the comedic timing in certain moments, and there were a few stumbles over lines at the performance I saw, but this ensemble is already quite funny. Seijo and Muriel have great chemistry as roguish Algernon and flirtatious Cecily. Reyes shines as Bracknell, with an unbending haughty posture and a subtle twitch of the lips to signal disapproval. Crystal Claros and Matt Keeley add to the fun in the respective roles of Dr. Chasuble — Miss Prism’s love interest — and Merriman/Lane, the two butlers.

The original subtitle of “The Importance of Being Earnest” is “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.” Strawdog’s production is by no means serious, but it’s not entirely trivial, thanks to the recurring theme of the importance of chosen family for LGBTQ people. Jack reminisces warmly about Cecily’s grandfather, who took him under his wing when he first came out and moved to Chicago. The familial theme comes full circle when Jack learns the truth about his past in a last-minute plot twist.

Keeley’s bio calls this “a production that he believes Oscar Wilde would’ve loved to see.” At the risk of projecting onto the past, I’d have to agree. Strawdog has taken some of the most important values of Pride Month — love, acceptance and family — and made them sing through the words of a 19th-century gay playwright. Happy Pride, indeed.

Review: “The Importance of Being Earnest” (3 stars)

When: Through June 30

Where: Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Tickets: Free with advance registration; donations accepted at strawdog.org

Emily McClanathan is a freelance critic.

 



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