“There’s a lot of talk about what makes this play great: its romantic elements, the genius of Wilde’s language; at heart it is simply the story of a young bachelor and his man-servant,” says Craig DiFolco ‘99 of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a Cap & Bells production directed by Christina Ronai ‘00. DiFolco is joking, but after the hour-and-a-half we’ve just spent together, I can almost believe him.
I’ve been invited to sit in on part of a rehearsal for the play, and have been watching DiFolco, who plays Algernon (one of the play’s two protagonists) rehearse his opening scenes with Seth Earn ‘01, who plays Lane, the man-servant. The three scenes are short, only a few lines each, but they open the play and introduce the character of Algernon to the audience; Ronai is determined to get them exactly right. Even if this means doing each one over and over…and over.
Just now she’s focused on the character of Lane. Earn wants to play him cranky and cynical, but neither he nor Ronai think it’s working.
“Seth, try happy, okay? Really happy. You are the happiest man-servant ever. Please?” Earn complies, grinning maniacally through his lines and laughing heartily at intervals. The scene plays like a sitcom with a laugh track run amuck. Take two.
Earnest is Ronai’s first attempt at directing solo, although she has experience as an assistant director, as well as performing in many productions, both in her high school in London and at Williams. She remembers seeing a professional performance of the classic Wilde comedy, which plays with notions of truthfulness, class, identity, and language in the context of two love stories, as a child and being “completely and thoroughly entertained.” Ronai later read the play and fell in love with its sophisticated and often hilarious wordplay. Last spring, when she read the play again, she began to think about the possibilities of putting it on stage here at Williams.
“I thought it would be a challenge to see if I could translate what I’d enjoyed and found so entertaining as an English person to something that could work here,” Ronai says. This has proved to be no small challenge, for Earnest is nothing if not British in its themes, its characterizations of human interaction, and its language. Wilde himself once remarked with characteristic wit that the British “have everything in common with the Americans now, except, of course, the language.”
Ronai has dealt in part with the difficulty of this translation of culture, humor, and ideals by setting her production of the play in 20th century New York City instead of in turn-of-the-century England.
On this choice, Ronai comments, “I knew that I didn’t want my actors attempting bad British accents [that] would just have detracted from the clarity of Wilde’s extraordinary use of language, and I didn’t think we had the time or the expertise to learn good ones. Also, I knew that we didn’t have the resources to attempt period costuming.”
Ronai says that her decision to locate the play “on this side of the Atlantic,” as she puts it, has influenced her production of the play in other, less obvious ways as well. She says that the “American-ness” of her actors, their lack of the “stand-offishness” that is stereotypically British, has “freed their interpretations of these characters and has affected the way their characters interact with one another. Gwendolen and Cecily [the female protagonists] especially aren’t as inhibited or as decorous in the way they behave [as they might have been in a traditional production]. I think this is due to the American location and the modern-day setting.”
Of course, this interpretation of the play is not without its difficulties. For one thing, would Wilde, the consummate Englishman, approve? “It’s an experiment,” Ronai says, “a challenge. It’s an American interpretation of what is undoubtedly a British play.”
Some of those difficulties are manifesting themselves tonight, as Ronai attempts to explain the role of the man-servant in a strictly class-based society to her two actors. The complex co-dependent relationship of the British upper and lower classes at the turn of the century is not a subject that is quickly or easily elucidated, at least not at eleven o’ clock on a Wednesday night with hours of homework yet to go.
Ronai does her directorial best, however, at one point launching into an extended metaphor about ants and elephants in an attempt to make her point. Her actors seem bewildered but eager to please. After one rather muddled attempt, Earn turns to Ronai and asks, “Does this work? Because I think we’ve really destroyed the whole thing Oscar Wilde had in mind, but otherwise?” Time for take three.
At last a compromise is reached. Lane is once again to be a cynical character, with occasional moments of warmth and humanity to create the dramatic effect Ronai was seeking. Both actors and director are getting tired: DiFolco and Earn frequently burst out laughing in the middle of scenes, lines are being forgotten or garbled, and a pile of empty water bottles is accumulating at the base of the couch where Ronai and her stage manager, Lauren Siegel ‘00, are seated. Real progress has been made, however. Agreement has been reached on the inflection, timing, and expression of each line, and the final directions are entered by Siegel into her well-worn stage manager’s book. The dialogue, which I by now could easily recite along with the actors, flows smoothly and naturally, with appropriate pauses and emphases. It’s a wrap.
Reflecting as I leave rehearsal, I realize that DiFolco was both right and wrong when he joked that The Importance of Being Earnest was “the story of a young bachelor and his man-servant.” This play is about the complexities of human interaction: how we perceive one another, class tensions, the judgments we make, the difficulty of making oneself understood, and the intricacies of even the most ordinary conversation, like that between a bachelor and his man-servant. In the same way, tonight’s rehearsal, although it comprised perhaps thirty seconds of a full-length play, demonstrated all of the challenges and difficulties of making those human interactions come to life on stage. And that, when the curtain goes up on opening night, will be what it’s all about.
The Importance of Being Earnest , by Oscar Wilde, will be performed at 8:00 pm on Feb. 26-28 in Currier Ballroom. Admission is free and seating is on a first come, first served basis. This is a Cap and Bells production.