Scena Theatre: ‘The Importance of Being…Earnestine?’

Scena Theatre reprises its gender-bending reimagining of Oscar Wild’s classic comedy confection, now playing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.

Cast members currently starring in Scena Theatre's gender-bending update of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," now playing at DC's Atlas Performing Arts Center. (Photo Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

WASHINGTON, Aug. 30, 2015 – I’m glad I neglected to read Scena Theatre’s advance press release before I wandered into Washington’s Atlas Performing Arts Center last weekend. That’s because reading the release would have only spoiled the unexpected fun of Scena’s revival of its 2011 production of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy, “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

If you’ve seen this play on the boards before—which most regular theatergoers have—and if you think you know its characters already, you’ll find you have to think about them all again. That’s because Scena’s production reverses the genders of its key roles

Scena's updated "Earnest" now playing at the Atlas. Atlas marquee. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)
Scena’s updated “Earnest” now playing at the Atlas. Atlas marquee. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

Nothing prepared me for the gender-bending role reversals that a mustachioed Nanna Ingvarsson delivered as oh-so-proper bastard aristocrat Jack Worthing, and that dashing Danielle Day pulled off as charmingly reckless playboy Algernon Moncrieff.

Their chemistry between this well-matched pair of deceptively disarming hedonists—both in hot pursuit of the wrong damsels in distress—proves riveting in the opening moments of the first act as your mind wraps itself around their flawless timing and forthright delivery of Oscar’s classic one-liners like, “Girls never marry the men they flirt with!”

Adding to the impression is Scena’s moderately updated setting and impeccable wardrobe choices, both of which transport Wilde’s play from its original 1890s setting to the British Roaring Twenties.

Costuming highlights include Algernon’s powder blue smoking jacket, accented with a flamboyant shirt complemented by contrasting butcher block flared pants with broad pink and grey wide vertical strips, all topped off with the white carnation he’s planted in “his” lapel.

Not to be undone in the fashion department by Algie, Jack boasts spiffy grey hounds-tooth suiting—including crisply cuffed and immaculately tailored pants, set off with contrasting white spats, a pink bowtie and a striped worsted wool vest, not to mention his perfect, carefully placed watch pocket. The entire ensemble was the cat’s meow as this odd couple indulged in an imaginary game of croquet on the lawn of a country estate.

Whatever the time period, Wilde’s “male” leads are obviously portrayed—with a healthy dose of humor—as cultured metrosexual men-about-town before their time. Both possess a flair for the witty and overtly dramatic, as in their class-conscious observation, within earshot of Ellie Nicoll’s dour, deadpanning manservant Lane: “The butler is the perfect pessimist!”

But nothing prepared me for the charming and utterly fetching “women” in this production. Robert Sheire’s spot-on performance as Algernon’s love interest Cecily remains consistently in character. Sheire portrays her as a prissy and impossibly bouncy redhead with a sexy A-line dress with matching pumps; and, I must say, a sexy pair of legs for a cross-dresser.

But the crème de la crème had to be Graham Pilato’s inspired portrayal of Algernon’s love interest Gwendolyn. Pilato’s take on Gwendolyn in drag conjured up visions of Jack Lemmon with a lisp.

Inside tip: grab a seat in the stage right over low area of reserved seats for latecomers, the better to witness this production’s hilarious swing scene, where Gwendolyn regales Jack with way too much skin for a proper Brit lady on the upswing. Graham Pilato’s sexy, hairy legs make Jack swoon with every push of her plump derrière as the audience howls with laughter.

The only thing funnier than Gwendolyn is Brian Hemmingsen – Nanna Ingvarsson’s real-life husband who previously portrayed Gus in Scena’s unexpected runaway winter hit ‘The Norwegians.” Here he portrays a formidable Lady Bracknell. Hemmingsen is no Tyler Perry “Madea.”

Atlas Performing Art Center's bold neon signs brightens nightlife on DC's H St NE corridor. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)
Atlas Performing Art Center’s bold neon signs brightens nightlife on DC’s H Street NE corridor. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

As Lady Bracknell, he, she, or it cuts an impressive figure. Lady B is dressed to the nines, attired in a matching sheer purple lace gown accentuated by a red and black floral accent floor length wrap that all but covered the black patent leather Florsheim shoes that only a six- foot-four Amazon would wear, all of which is topped off by sparkling pinky rings and a white-feathered crown.

Hemmingsen’s three rocking motions, launched from the seated position with assistance from the butlers or nearby gentleman Jack is another deft comic touch that only Scena’s outrageous artistic director Robert McNamara could have intentionally woven in to keep the play moving at a brisk pace.

In stark contrast to the flamboyant period dress is the spacious black box wrap-around backdrop with a contrasting fleur-de-lis trellised background of delicate greys and whites that scenic designer Michael Stepowany created, the better to frame the graphic messages of country gardens and 1920s post-Victorian imagery.

My only complaint about this production was the length of its re-crafted first act of this two-act version. (Wilde’s original had three acts.) Despite the deftly shifting repartee between the sexes, this act tended to drag a bit, likely because it came in at nearly an-hour-and-a-half of running time. After the 15-minute intermission, the 45-minute second act seemed to flow more briskly.

But that said, by the final curtain, I’d have to say, “All’s Well That Ends Well!”

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

Tickets and Information: Performances of “The Importance of Being Earnest” run through Sept. 13 at The Atlas Performing Arts Center, located at 1333 H St. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002. To purchase tickets and learn more about SCENA’s mission, please visit or call 703-684-7990.

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