For the most part, Artists Rep's The Importance of Being Earnest is what you'd expect of Oscar Wilde's witty marriage plot. The opulent set has a black marble floor, white columns and French doors. The actors wear top hats and three-piece suits, big skirts and matching petticoats with even bigger sleeves.
The one unexpected bit, though, is that all the characters, including the two affluent male protagonists, are played by women.
Contemporary theater has sort of an obsession with classic plays staged with all-female casts—there are entire companies devoted to all-female productions of Shakespeare's plays. Too often, though, it's just gimmickry poorly disguised as a modern twist. But occasionally, it's something more. As protagonist bachelors Jack and Algernon, it's sort of liberating to see Jamie Rea and Ayanna Berkshire fully inhabit the easy, unaware confidence that's usually reserved for men.
Wilde's script is already rich with dryly hilarious class commentary, but Artists Rep adds its own absurd touches. When Jack tells everyone that his made-up brother Earnest has died, Rea appears from a stage entrance wearing a top hat wrapped in a giant, black tulle bow. When she eventually walks onto the set, the bow is revealed to have a train so comically long it seems endless.
Kailey Rhodes plays Gwendolen, Jack's love interest, with a deeply funny, cartoonish lack of naturalism. Sara Lucht is brilliant as both the graceless country butler and the uptight city butler. If men had been up for the roles of Jack or Algernon, it'd be hard to imagine they'd be able to beat out Rea or Berkshire.
Still, The Importance of Being Earnest is already about gender. Here, an all-female cast doesn't subvert gender roles so much as draw attention to them—which is something the script does on its own.
The fact that not much changes when The Importance of Being Earnest is staged with an all-female cast is an argument for gender-blind casting. That might be as compelling as it gets, but Wilde's play doesn't need an update to be worthwhile, and Artists Rep does it plenty of justice.
SEE IT: The Importance of Being Earnest is at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., artistsrep.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Sunday and 2 pm Sunday, through June 11. Additional shows Wednesday, May 31 at noon and 7:30 pm Tuesday, June 6. No show Saturday, June 3. $25-$50.