Since its premiere in 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest has been produced by countless high schools and community theater groups, and now, interestingly, a drag troupe.
Earnest is a classic. Written by the iconic wit Oscar Wilde, it’s funny and fast and, if you’re given to wanting your theater to mean something, can mean lots of things. But is it the best vehicle for a company of men dressed as women, usually replete with sequins and giant wigs and surrounded by dildos?
As The Dolls’ Earnest is running at Albuquerque Little Theatre for only one weekend, I asked Ken Ansloan if I could join them for a rehearsal. Ansloan (whose drag persona, Tequila Mockingbyrd, plays Lady Bracknell) charitably agreed. In addition to being the grande dame of The Dolls, he adapted the play. That is, he infused Wilde’s work with a bit of his company’s perspective and flair. “Infusion,” says Jaime Pardo, the play’s director (and as Patti Roxxx, he plays Miss Prism), “is what we do.”
But let’s say that I still wasn’t sure. That, for argument’s sake, I was nervous about the smashing together of incongruous elements, leaving neither working. Then let’s say that this is about the time that the set designer walks on stage and says, “OK, these are where the two 12-foot dildos are going to be.” Imagine, then, my relief. Wilde is in good hands.
Because it’s not just Wilde’s play that The Dolls are tackling, but Wilde himself. Ansloan has inserted the Irish playwright into the play and has him interact with drag queens who acknowledge the artifice of playing English aristocracy. It’s not quite a play within a play, but a play about a play within a play.
Though Wilde is Ansloan’s favorite playwright, doing Earnest absolutely required a few things. “I was a little afraid of doing it straight, without giving it a slight Dolls twist. Also, I always wanted to play Lady Bracknell. And being The Dolls, I also wanted Cecily and Gwendolyn to be played by males. And I thought it would be interesting bringing Oscar Wilde into the play as a character.” He points out that, though the production of Earnest was the pinnacle of Wilde’s career, it was also the beginning of the end. He would soon find himself on trial for gross indecency and imprisoned. He never wrote another play. “I wanted to address those issues,” Ansloan says.
Even though the piece is a critique of Victorian society and mores, Jim Johns (who plays the Reverend Chasuble) says we’re not beyond the sort of persecution Wilde experienced. “We still live in a society where a euphemism for something bad is ‘That’s so gay.’ That’s horrendous.”
“With homosexuality, you see how far we’ve come and how much more we have to go,” Ansloan says. “I think there would be certain people ... if it were discovered they were gay, they’d be brought down low. It’s disturbing that can still happen today, what happened to Wilde. We’ve come far, but I still think it’s relevant.”
Earnest takes place during a time when, as Pardo says, “Appearances were all that mattered. They say one thing and they do another.” In a way, that’s what Wilde was forced to do as well. It makes sense, then, to perform the play in such a way that exploits and explodes the levels of artifice. Gay men as modern women as Victorian women is a study in how to be something you’re not; but like all great drag, it’s also a profile in how to express your purest, best self.
In Wilde’s works, it’s the language that’s the star. With The Dolls, The Dolls are the stars. That was a challenge for the group, but one Pardo thinks they handled well. “There are some big Dolls moments ... and we ran with that in our way. I think it’s a nice blend of the two.”
Russell Maynor, who plays Jack, concurs and offers more. “Ken is a fantastic writer. I was really excited when I heard he was going to do something with it.” Maynor says there’s a panoply of theatrical experiences to be had in this pumped-up version: emotion, slapstick, naughty bits. “I told Ken after reading this, ‘You are the Oscar Wilde of Albuquerque.’ ” Here’s to his happier ending.