Review: Theatre Above The Law Twists Gender and Identity in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde is remembered for being a poet and playwright as well as the victim of a criminal conviction for "gross indecency" because of consensual homosexual acts. He possessed a great wit that is evident in his 1895 masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest. The language and arch observations on class divisions and the landed gentry are still sharp and relevant today. The Theatre Above the Law cast is sharp and has excellent timing with witty and tongue-twisting banter. Director Tony Lawry's casting twists on gender and identity would likely meet with Wilde's approval.

This is the story of two men who each have dual identities that they use to escape the restrictive mores of 19th century London. Algernon (Nick Shank) is under the roof of the venerable Lady Bracknell (Stephanie Stockstill and Izzy Schafer). His cousin Gwendolyn (Taylor B. Hill) is being courted by Earnest (Katie Luchtenburg) much to the displeasure of Lady Bracknell. Algernon uses his alter ego Bundlesberry to get out and pursue Earnest's ward Cecily Cardew (Jacqui Touchet). Of course, Earnest is known as Uncle Jack to Cecily. Let the farcical antics begin!

The servants are a cockney sort who thumb their noses at all of the pomp and frippery. Stockstill doubles as one of the servants and the Vicar in addition to a hilarious Bracknell. Izzy Shafer doubles as the surly gamekeeper and a hilarious Bracknell in a fun bit of role-switching. Kendal Romero injects a mostly silent role of a servant with fantastic physical comedy and a bit of breaking the fourth wall at one point because the audience is in on the joke.

The Importance of Being Earnest is most commonly done as a parlor comedy in an overstuffed Victorian mansion. Foolish excess is a topic Wilde lampoons so well. Theatre Above the Law takes a different approach allowing the dialog and acting to give the impression of the restrictive Victorian era. Lady Bracknell puts an emphasis on every syllable and is given to baroque announcements such as "rise from this semi-recumbent position." This cast does away with the doilies and hosiery on the piano legs and delivers 95 minutes of pithy and beautifully spoken fun.

Above, Katie Luchtenburg with Taylor B. Hill. Photo courtesy of Theatre Above the Law.

The set by Stina Taylor is a simple gazebo and the costumes by Jessie Gowens, are equally simple save for a spectacular vest worn by Algernon when they dress for dinner. The chemistry among the cast members is wonderful. Taylor B. Hill plays Gwendolyn with an expressive face that is beautiful but their interpretation is 'aw shucks' more than prim maiden. Katie Luchtenburg gives a sexy edge to their Earnest/Jack that was not in the original. There is no dandyism or snobbery—just a confident person who knows what they want and it is Gwendolyn.

TATL ensemble. Photo courtesy of Theatre Above the Law.

Jacqui Touchet's Cecily is played as a stalkerish girl on the edge. Touchet has some comic chops and does a really good 10,000-mile stare and scary laugh. Shank has an excellent reaction as Algernon tries to keep his cool and his deception hidden. Director Tony Lawry does an excellent job helming this unique approach to Oscar Wilde. The pace and reactions are definitely Wilde, while the approach to gender and social mores is contemporary. It is a fun post-brunch delight on a chilly afternoon because it is doubtful that Algernon will share a muffin and the cucumber sandwiches get snarfed by the staff.

Wilde's trial for "gross indecency" has been dramatized in Moises Kaufman's play, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, staged by Promethean Theatre in 2016 and again in 2019. Court Theatre staged a memorable production of the play in 1998. Wilde served a prison term and died of meningitis at 46. He's buried in the famed Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

The Importance of Being Earnest clocks in at a sharp 90 minutes with no intermission. It runs through May 21 at Jarvis Square Theater, 1439 W. Jarvis St. in the Rogers Park neighborhood. For more information and tickets, please visit the Theatre Above the Law website theatreatl.org.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.