On November 15, I took my seat at Morrice Hall to watch an unforgettable opening night performance of The Importance of Being Earnest. A co-production between Tuesday Night Café Theatre (TNC) and Accordion Theatre, this take on Oscar Wilde’s 1895 classic centres a lesbian retelling of events. Although the text is left largely intact, several other changes were made, including shifting “the 1890s to the 1920s, England to New York, actors to actresses.”
Filled to the brim with sensational satire and whimsical wit, this interpretation of Wilde’s text was truly a joy to behold. Celeste Gunnel-Joyce and Maite Kramarz gave captivating lead performances as Algernon and Jack. As they bantered and battled with one another, the audience hung onto their every word in anticipation of what playful quip would pass through their lips next. Every aspect of the sets, blocking, and acting choices was meticulously chosen, coming together to create a cohesive story that was truly a labour of love. Even the power outage that hit Morrice Hall that night humorously worked in the play’s favour, striking just as Act I ended and coming back on right before intermission.
I will never forget the experience of shining our smartphone flashlights on the actors during that second act. As part of a majority-queer audience, watching a queer production of a historically queer-coded play, I could feel in that moment the heart of this take on The Importance of Being Earnest. TNC’s adaptation is a celebration of the queer roots of theatre. Its joyful, collaborative spirit is a breath of fresh air in a world of serious, overly-earnest media.
I sat down with the director, Carmen Mancuso, on behalf of The McGill Daily to discuss more about the production. The following interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
Eliana Freelund for The McGill Daily (MD): Why choose to put on The Importance of Being Earnest? Why is this play relevant now?
Carmen Mancuso (CM): First and foremost, it’s just such a funny show. The social satire transcends the time it was written in. It’s a perfect example of a work that was written during a very socially conservative time when none of the freedoms we enjoy today could ever have been imagined. It’s well known that during the premier in 1895 Oscar Wilde was publicly confronted by the father of the man he was seeing at the time, which led to a libel trial and his eventual imprisonment. Continuing to put on this play is a way of honouring both him, and the progress we’ve made.
MD: What was the thought process behind creating a lesbian retelling of the play?
CM: This time around, reading the dialogue in the play, I found myself thinking “Wow, this just sounds so butch, this sounds so gay.” The way Wilde creates these dandy-ish men lends perfectly to a modern, lesbian reading. This got us thinking, “What if we restaged this play with all women, and without having them do drag? What if we really embraced, and leaned into that angle?” Going from there, it seemed a natural progression to change the time period, since our vision didn’t seem to suit the 1890s anymore. We landed on doing a 1920s, very gay, Importance of Being Earnest.
MD: How did you go about changing the location and time period?
CM: It’s all due to our costume, set, and prop designers – Tea Anderson, Léa-Mirana Metz, and Ilesh Thomas. They worked really hard to visually, spiritually, and artistically recreate the time period, and not lean into the gaudy, flashy stereotypes we see in so much of our media today. A lot of research was done into what exactly the gay and lesbian subculture looked like at the time, and then using that visual language to aid in how we portrayed the characters.
MD: One of the standouts of this production is its truly joyful tone. In the playbill, you explain that “the goal was to make something entertaining, something towards modern queer audiences without the traditional misery-centered narratives that often overwhelm queer stories.” How did you achieve this feeling, and why is it so important for this particular retelling?
CM: We ultimately wanted to create something for all the gay theatre kids out there. Something that is unapologetically happy, silly, and entertaining. This is a play where no one dies. The saddest people get is over eating muffins. We wanted to do something fun, in a queer way – which unfortunately doesn’t always exist in modern media. It was also important for us to do this with something that is a fundamental part of “the canon.” In many ways, The Importance of Being Earnest is the archetypical university production – it’s been done so many times, even as recently as 2017 here at McGill. We wanted to take something from the canon and twist it in a little way that would just completely reframe it, while still keeping the original elements of the script. I’m so proud of what we ended up with, and I really hope that all our hard work came across!
The last week of shows for The Importance of Being Earnest will take place from November 22 to 24 at 7pm at Morrice Hall. Pay-what-you-can tickets can be purchased on Eventbrite. For more information, visit Tuesday Night Café Theatre’s Facebook and Instagram pages.