Jon Haynes and David Woods
You wouldn’t think that an effective way into the heart of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest would be to play down the comedy’s slapstick farce, stentorian wit, fast pacing, or romantic heterosexuality. But only if you haven’t seen David Woods and Jon Haynes, who play all nine of Wilde’s characters. The duo, a/k/a Ridiculusmus, under the astute direction of Jude Kelly, are giving all the time-honored productions — including the classic 1952 movie with Edith Evans — a run for their money at the American Repertory Theatre (through January 14).
One way that ART artistic director Robert Woodruff, who just announced that he’s following Johnny Damon and Nicholas Martin back to New York at the end of this season, has distinguished himself and the theater during his tenure has been by importing first-class experimental theater from around the world. Ridiculusmus is based in London, where Woods and Haynes have established themselves as a comic duo specializing in new work. Kelly, a highly regarded and much-honored British director, became a fan, and they enlisted her to take on an established play.
Finding new ways to look at classic work has always been a large part of ART’s mission, so the collaboration fits the Loeb Stage like one of Lady Bracknell’s gloves, particularly when the talent is as jaw-droppingly good as it is here. This is not the camp exercise one might well expect from two males playing four women and five men in a comedy about mixed-up identities and romantic liaisons.
The natural tendency in drag is to highlight the differences between the sexes — stretching the vocal range from bass to soprano — or to reverse direction and make the women seem unnaturally gruff. Throw in a few facial distortions and you’re ready for Provincetown.
What makes Haynes and Woods riveting for two and a half hours is their ability to upend conventions of camp and traditional theater simultaneously. “Gender-bending” may be an overused term at a time when Dame Edna is a mainstream sensation, but these guys make her/his pursuits seem trivial. As they switch identities, snap off one-liners, and go about the stage changing the music, lighting, and scenery, their basic demeanor changes in mostly minimal ways from one character to another, relying more on wigs and costume changes than over-the-top switches in dynamics.
The bare-pated Woods (think Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast) gives the same raw — dare we say masculine? — edge to John Worthing’s ward, Cecily, as he does to JW himself. When his Lady Bracknell enters the room, it’s as if Cardinal Richelieu were about to have the musketeers garroted. Haynes also plays the not-so-good lady when circumstances demand, but he’s more the pretty boy/girl (think Anthony Andrews in Brideshead Revisited) as both Algernon and Gwendolen.
Both men have exquisite timing, slipping nimbly in and out of costumes while calmly delivering their lines with unexaggerated grace and articulation. If this isn’t strait-laced Wilde, it is straight-faced. The humor won’t get anyone rolling in the aisles, but it might get audiences paying more attention to Wilde’s world, and ours.