By Donna Herman

I used to love going to see Shakespeare in the park until it became a career trying to get a ticket.  There’s something compelling about seeing theater outdoors.  Perhaps it’s the Ancient Greek in my Jewish soul.  Last night I fell in love again with theater in Central Park when I saw NY Classical Theatre’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.  There’s nothing more satisfying, and nothing more quintessentially NYC than sitting on the grass with others in the know, enjoying the wonderful weather, the idyllic backdrop of a body of water framed with drooping trees, and a talented troupe of actors performing a witty, erudite piece of classical theater.  For free!

The first thing that delighted me was that the actors were not miked, but they are trained and can project so I could hear them in the open area.  The only bar to understanding was the occasional accent lapse that resulted in mumbling.

The second thing that delighted me was that for this production of The Importance of Being Earnest, the company is choosing to switch roles every other performance with the men taking the women’s roles and the women taking the men’s roles.  I saw it on a night when the genders were reversed, and it was a lot of fun. Wilde’s play being a poke in the inflated pretensions of Victorian notions of duty, respectability, morality and class, the simple act of switching genders heightened those absurdities.

However, acting like a person of the opposite gender is not all that is required in this circumstance.  The performers have to find the characters as well.  Some were more and less successful with this piece of it, no matter whether you could tell they were a man dressed as a woman or vice versa.  And really, in the end, what counts is the successful portraying of a character.  Connie Costanzo has perfectly captured the role of Algernon Moncrieff, the glib and irreverent upper-class young man-about-town, who lies without compunction and for whom whom life is a series of carefree adventures as long as he suffers no ill consequences.  There is no mistaking the fact that Ms. Costanzo is a woman dressing and acting like a man – quite successfully.  But it doesn’t matter at all because she has captured the character so well.

Likewise, Kate Goehring who plays the faithful butler Merriman with a Groucho Marx-like duck walk and a straight face and dry delivery doesn’t fool anybody about her gender but manages to turn a small role into a star turn.  And both Jed Peterson who plays Gwendolen, and Ademide Akintilo who plays Cecily, are clearly men dressed as women but they both have distinctly captured the separate characters of these privileged young women.

There is one actor who did have me confused.  If not for the fact that I knew that the men and women had switched roles, I would not have known that Dr. Chasuble (Tina Stafford), the country cleric was being played by a woman.  But the mere fact of the gender reversal doesn’t account for Ms. Stafford’s absolute brilliance in the role of the reverent on the outside but passionate on the inside bumbler that is Dr. Chasuble.

Director Stephen Burdman deserves credit for staging The Importance of Being Earnest in such a challenging environment with no backstage or wings, no dressing rooms, and no lights.  He kept a brisk pace going and a smooth flow of characters on and off stage with no awkwardness.  There was no set – none needed with that background – just a few props to indicate where they were.  As the evening wore on and the sun started setting, there were stagehands sitting in the front row with a flashlight in each hand, each one trained on the face of a different actor.  This worked well enough, I just wished that there was one stagehand and flashlight for each actor since it was very difficult for one person to cover two moving actors at a time.  Often, one of the actors would lose light for a few moments which was distracting.  Luckily, it wasn’t fully dark until the very end of the play.  By which time I was so charmed by the whole thing, I didn’t demand my money back….

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, directed by Stephen Burdman

WITH: Ademide Akintilo (Algernon/Cecily); Kristen Calgaro (Gwendolen/Jack); Connie Castanzo (Cecily/Algernon); Kate Goehring (Lady Bracknell/Merriman); John Michalski (Merriman/Lady Bracknell); Jed Peterson (Jack/Gwendolen); Tina Stafford (Miss Prism/Dr. Chasuble); Clay Storseth (Dr. Chasuble/Miss Prism).

Production Designer, Maddie Peterson; Casting Director, Stephanie Klapper; Voice/Speech Coach, Joan Melton; Movement Coach, Andrea Andresakis; Production Stage Manager, Michael Fernandez; Assistant Stage Manager, Leigh Walter; Publicity, The Press Room, Jim Byk.  Presented by NY Classical Theatre through June 30th.  Performances are free.  Tuesdays to Sundays at 7pm.  Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays are traditional casting.  Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays are reversed.  Performances are at Central Park (103rd & Central Park West) from May 28 to June 16; Brooklyn Bridge Park (Pier 1) from June 18 to 23; and Carl Schurz Park (East 86th Street) from June 25 to 30.  To receive ADVANCE program info, including RAIN CANCELATION NOTICE, make a FREE RESERVATION.