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Four Humors' gender-swapped 'Earnest' is high-camp hilarity

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You wouldn’t think that camping it up would work with Oscar Wilde. He was the master of the dry quip, and understandably directors tend to keep their productions crisp, letting the riotous implications of the characters’ zingers contrast with their genteel surroundings.

The Southern Theater
$12

That approach has been the basis for untold numbers of perfectly competent productions of The Importance of Being Earnest, but Four Humors decided to see what would happen if they gave the play a broader treatment. The result, now playing at the Southern Theater, is completely refreshing: It gives this oft-performed classic a new lease on life.

Director Jason Ballweber and his team make some thought-provoking choices -- notably the gender-swapped casting of two major characters -- but they understand that this isn’t an academic thesis, and every departure from standard practice adds to the sheer entertainment value of this highly amusing production.

Best chums Jack and Algernon are played, respectively, by a scampy Christian Bardin (a woman) and an outrageously moustached Ryan Lear, positively glorying in one of Wilde’s great comic roles. Jack is in love with Gwendolen (a blithely straightfaced Brighid Burkhalter), while Algernon falls for Jack’s 18-year-old ward Cecily (Emily Wrolson, taking “vivacious” to a new level).

The characterization of Lady Bracknell is much more conventional -- except that she’s played by a man. Brant Miller delivers a master-class comedic performance, making the most of every appalled gasp as it becomes clear that the gentleman courting Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen has a far from respectable pedigree.

Ballweber gets in a pair of impish cameos as two butlers, one quietly dignified and the other almost obscenely animated. Filling out the cast are Matt Spring as Rev. Chasuble, and Iris Rose Page as Cecily’s tutor Miss Prism, a mature woman whose composure is not so complete as to avoid betraying her wish to loosen the cleric’s collar.

Onstage risers put audience members on either side of the action, which brings everyone closer and thus creates a more conducive setting for comedy. A device of having the cast often address the audience directly, though, distracts -- especially when the half of the audience being addressed is directly opposite you.

Live music is provided by Amanda Verstegen and Anna Weggel-Reed, who sit primly and create a sweet, slightly goofy soundtrack with keyboard, ukulele, and eclectic percussion. Between acts (the play is presented with no intermission), they entertain the audience with silly but poignant songs.

In the tradition of Four Humors’ excellent Lolita: A Three Man Show (2013), this company again demonstrates the ability to create smartly subversive stagings that also manage to be very funny. From beginning to end of this Earnest production, it’s hard to stop smiling.