Wilde west

"His Majesty," Oscar Wilde purrs to an expectant King Edward VII, "is like a warm stream of bat's piss. So strong in his sentiments and flowing in his expression."
Monty Python fans will no doubt remember this (paraphrased) line from the classic sketch in which Wilde, Shaw, and other celebrated wits are trying to top each other's bon mots in the Royal Presence, only to quickly stray into silliness and non sequitur. Now that's a reworking of Wilde you can take to the bank.

The revamped Wilde now on display at Texas Stage isn't quite up to that lofty standard, but it does have pluses of its own. For those of you in the back row, Texas Stage is an important new addition to Cowtown's cultural milieu. It's part of the Bass family's attempt to reshape Fort Worth more to its liking, and right-thinking citizens are all for it.

Based on confidential reports from highly placed sources who can't be revealed, Ed Bass was flossing his teeth one night when the thought occurred to him, "Hey, what if we base a professional production company at that nifty theater in the Caravan of Dreams, sign up some Pro Bowl caliber theater veterans, and stage reworkings of the classics with a few new bits thrown in to keep the critics happy?"

And that's just what he and other local culture lords such as Van Cliburn have done. Now, can you really create a vital, breathing, responsive theater just by throwing a lot of money around?

Sure you can.
At least, you can when you bring in people like Charles Marowitz as artistic director and William Eckart as season designer. Marowitz logged considerable time with the Royal Shakespeare Company and has built an international reputation as a retrofitter of classic plays. Eckart's design credits include original Broadway sets for Damn Yankees, Li'l Abner, Fiorello, and Mame. Give these two a terrific space and a few top-flight British and American actors to work with and you would expect a contender.

Based on Texas Stage's interpretation of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, that's pretty much what you get. Contemporary directors feel pressed to justify their selection of chestnuts like this, and Marowitz has a couple of explanations handy. First, Earnest will soon be 100 years old, so a centennial celebration is in order. Second, Marowitz sees the play as more than a dazzling parade of paradoxes and epigrams. As a homosexual trapped in the Victorian Age, Wilde had to play a cat and mouse game of hiding his sexual preference behind the smoke screen of marriage and even fatherhood (of course, this could never happen today, nudge, nudge). Detection meant disgrace and, in Wilde's case, imprisonment.

Marowitz has therefore reworked the play so that protagonists Algernon Montcrief and John Worthing are not witty young wastrels in search of their female soul mates, but rather two gay men who are in serious need of distaff covers. Other prominent characters in the play also have secret vices (alcoholism, exhibitionism) not attached to them by the author that Victorians in their hypocrisy liked to sweep under the rug. This more frankly sexual and earthy take on the play is accomplished without tampering with the original text.

It's a tack that's invited by the play's suggestive dialogue, but in a way it's quite unnecessary. The entertaining thing about Wilde is that his characters tend to wear their hypocrisy on their sleeves. They derive most of their wicked charm by inverting conventional morality and turning it on its ear (i.e., "The majority is always wrong"). To underline Algernon's hypocrisy is tantamount to stressing that Scrooge is a miser or that Falstaff drinks too much. It's a little obvious. In addition, Algernon and John's sexual preference isn't subtly hinted at. The audience is hammered with it from the start when John enters the stage dressed like a woman and strips down to garters and panties. He then minces and smirks throughout the play in case we missed the point. "The wittiest play in the English language" therefore comes uncomfortably close to burlesque in this revision.

Fortunately, Earnest is a play that can withstand just about anything. You could perform it under water or hanging upside-down from the ceiling like bats and it would still be funny. And even with its tactical misstep, there is a lot about this production to like.

The Caravan of Dreams theater is superb space that is elegant and intimate, yet offers a large stage. Eckart has adorned the stage marvelously, particularly in Act I, which depicts Algernon's lavishly appointed London flat. The stage reeks of luxurious elegance. Plush oriental rug, throw pillows, silver tea sets, decanters, provocative paintings, and a large, working hookah perfectly capture the tastes of a turn-of-the-century aesthete. The garden and drawing room scenes of Acts II and III are more simply staged, but are just as handsome and evocative. The costumes by Giva Taylor, especially the Victorian period dresses, are alone worth the price of admission.

The acting of the Anglo-American cast is uniformly good, with particularly strong showings by Oliver Muirhead as Algernon and Elizabeth Ann Dickinson as Gwendolyn Fairfax, John Worthing's cover interest. Muirhead has the comic's ability to "say things funny," as opposed to saying funny things, and Dickinson has an appropriately dangerous sparkle about her. Virginia Downing, a seasoned stage, screen, and TV actress, is one of the "name" players here, along with Jane Windsor, who for three years played Emma Donovan, a skunk on NBC's "Days of Our Lives." Downing as the august Lady Bracknell has the grand presence required by the part, but she tends to totter a bit. Windsor is winsome as Cecily Cardew, John Worthing's ward, but she's not quite believable as an 18-year-old.

Given the able acting, the gorgeous sets and costumes, and Wilde's still brilliant words, this play can't help but be entertaining and witty. And, as Monty Python reminds us, "The only thing worse than being witty is...not being witty."

The Importance of Being Earnest, at Texas Stage through November 26.