For Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest” was both his greatest achievement and the beginning of his downfall.
The play’s opening night was the climax of his career, but the Marquess of Queensberry – whose son Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas was Wilde’s lover – planned to disrupt the show and present Wilde with a bouquet of rotten vegetables. Wilde learned of the plan ahead of time and Queensberry was barred from entering the theater, but their feud eventually led Wilde to sue Queensberry for libel.
In the subsequent court case, Wilde’s homosexuality was revealed, and he was sentenced to two years of hard labor for gross indecency. Wilde was never the same and died three years after he was released from prison.
This week, VCUarts Theatre will stage “Earnest” as its second mainstage performance of the season.
Wilde’s witty comedy concerns two protagonists, Algernon and Jack, who create fictitious characters in order to ignore their social obligations. This high farce trivializes institutions like marriage in its satire of Victorian morals. Since its debut in 1895, it’s remained one of the most popular works in the English language.
“It’s basically a story about these two guys who create fake personas to corral these women into their love and into their arms,” says Robert McNickle, a senior theater performance student who plays Algernon in the show. “It ends up getting a little tricky and complicated when their secret is revealed. It’s very funny and it’s very silly, but it’s also very wholesome.”
Sharon Ott, the show’s director, says that the idea for staging “Earnest” came out of the realization that VCUarts Theatre has staged few comedies in recent years, even though the school has four improv comedy groups.
“I thought it would be interesting for them to try this kind of high style comedy, which is a very different animal, and very much technique-based in lots of ways,” says Ott, who’s an associate professor of theater, VCUarts Theatre’s artistic director and the former chair of the theater department. “We also felt that we had some actors who were capable of handling that challenge.”
McNickle says his character of Algernon is a flashy and mischievous young gentleman from London.
“He was born into a family of luxury and wealth, and then he continues to spend that money while not necessarily making much of it in return,” McNickle says. “He lives a very extravagant lifestyle, and he does not take anything seriously.”
Playing opposite McNickle is Avery Johnson as Jack, a young gentleman from the country who was adopted after he was found inside a handbag at a train station as a baby.
“He’s a guy with a lot of responsibility, adopted by a wealthy man who lives in the country, and he’s always having to fix things and work on stuff,” Johnson says. “He wants to get to town and be able to let loose and not have any of those responsibilities. He’s trying to live this double life and really hopes [those lives] don’t intersect.”
Johnson says the show is a fun comedy about characters who deceive people while trying to find love.
“The tagline for [the show] is it’s a trivial comedy about serious people, and I think that kind of describes it,” Johnson says.
The show engages in non-traditional casting, meaning that the actors’ racial and ethnic identities didn’t determine the roles they were considered for. Ott says that the non-traditional casting of the historical romance TV series “Bridgerton” has led to a shift in student interest in historical works.
“The [Black, Indigenous and people of color] students in the department are more interested, I would say, than previously in doing these sorts of period pieces,” she says. “[‘Bridgerton’ executive producer] Shonda Rhimes really did us a great credit in opening up the world of period drama, period costume drama, to actors of different cultures and races, and that’s been very important for our student body, who might have, pre-‘Bridgerton,’ thought, ‘I’ll never feel at home in this world.’”
VCUarts Theatre’s next mainstage show is “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” a play written by Moisés Kaufman of “The Laramie Project” fame. “Gross Indecency” concerns Wilde’s three trials about his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, and quotes from contemporary court documents, newspaper accounts and other direct sources.
Ott says that while the play’s original 1997 off-Broadway production cast only white male actors, VCU’s production will use non-traditional casing again, this time to cast female-identifying actors and trans actors.
Of “Earnest,” McNickle says it’s easy to understand why it’s considered one of the greatest comedies of all time.
“There are such high stakes in this show, and such unbelievable and unplausible situations,” McNickle says. “You can’t help but laugh at what’s going on.”
VCUarts Theatre’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” runs Oct. 6-9 at the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, 922 Park Ave. For more information, visit arts.vcu.edu or call (804)-828-6026.