Nearly every drama student has read Oscar Wilde’s classic, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but few have performed the Victorian era farce quite the way it has been reimagined by Thinking Cap Theatre Company’s artistic director Nicole Stodard.
Stodard and her company have a well deserved reputation for tackling edgy, experimental theater works, but Wilde’s play is arguably anything but “experimental.”
The play was first performed in 1895 in London and features protagonists who maintain fictitious personae to escape the burdens of their social obligations in Victorian London. The play satirizes the social conventions of the day, including marriage. Some modern scholars have surmised that Wilde was winking at homosexuality (he himself was convicted and imprisoned for buggery) as “earnestness.”
“I studied Oscar Wilde’s work while I was in graduate school in Ireland and had the chance to see some productions there, also a BBC film version,” Stodard recalled. “I loved reading his works, but didn’t love seeing them on stage.”
It would be many years before Stodard would found her company, which now calls the Vanguard Sanctuary for the Arts on south Andrews Avenue in Fort Lauderdale home, and finally take her stab at the play to close out the company’s season.
Her “Earnest” has been set in the disco era of late 1970s Manhattan.
“I love the ‘70s and wanted it to be fun and lively and add music,” she said. “I also think the sexual politics of the period fit, it was a sexually liberated time, but there was still tension and issues of sexual justice that inform our production.”
Stodard has retained Wilde’s Victorian language and only updated place names. But, there is one BIG difference: the two couples are now gay and lesbian with some gender-bending, crossdressing twists thrown in.
“It so much fun in the rehearsal process where the puns already exist and where they start to go in new and funny ways due to the casting process,” Stodard said.
She elaborated, “Both people who haven’t seen ‘Earnest’ before and those who have will be able to find touches of nostalgia because of the way we’re framing the piece—not that it’s for everyone. But one thing it’s not is high brow. Wilde’s sensibility was cheeky and ironic and what has become known as camp to us.
Carbonell Award winner Clay Cartland, who portrays Cecily, said of the production, “Take everything you thought you knew about Oscar Wilde and this show in general…then imagine Donna Summer conceived a child while watching ‘Saturday Night Fever’….”
Despite the enthusiasm of Stodard, her cast and production team, the director is prepared for some pushback from audiences.
She predicted, “I think there are some people who are Oscar Wilde purists who will argue we shouldn’t tamper (with his play), but that’s exactly why we’re doing this.”
Thinking Cap Theatre Co. presents Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m., Nov. 20 through Dec. 13 at the Vanguard Sanctuary for the Arts, 1501 S. Andrews Ave. in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $35 at ThinkingCapTheatre.com.