The Lightness of Being (Earnest)

Writer and director Lee Trull on Wilde/Earnest, his freely adapted, updated take on The Importance of Being Earnest, opening this week at Kitchen Dog Theater.

published Sunday, March 8, 2015

Photo: Danielle Deraleau/TheaterJones
Lee Trull, writer and director of Wilde/Earnest at Kitchen Dog Theater

Dallas — Oscar Wilde on roller skates? Well, Wilde’s characters, for sure—and that, ladies and gents, should be something to see.

Kitchen Dog Theater continues its 2014-2015 season with the world premiere of Lee Trull’s Wilde/Earnest. This zany, slam-bang re-do of Wilde’s 1895 masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest brings Wilde’s Victorian lovers up to date, running them through their frantic, romantic paces in full-out hipster style—which, says KDT’s press release, includes those skates, plus “trampolines, elaborate cocktails, perfect playlists and a range of other mercurial obsessions.”

After all, Wilde did call the original Earnest “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”—and who is more serious about the Importance of Tiny Details than, well, just about any hipster you know?

Trull, who is directing his adaptation, has been a Kitchen Dog company member (both as an actor and director) for nearly a decade, and also serves as Director of New Play Development for the Dallas Theater Center. We caught up with him at the start of rehearsals, sounding playful and pretty happy about the process. Is Trull himself a hipster like the characters in his update of Earnest? He seems to feel he can at least blend in with that culture—but also admits to occasional lunches with his parents at The Blackeyed Pea…and liking it.

Not cool, dude.


TheaterJones: This is one of those Dick Cavett talk-show kind of questions, but…if Oscar Wilde walked into rehearsals, what would you tell him about what you’re doing with his big hit play?

Lee Trull: Probably I’d start off by saying I’d ruined it…and hope he has a sense of humor. I think what I’m doing is blowing it up, exploding it a little bit—the things we think about stylistically that make an Oscar Wilde play: sitting down, sipping tea, a kind of static production that builds as it goes.


More words than action? 

Yes—and I’m sort of stepping [the play] forward into the modern attention span, for the fun of it, not for any other reason; I don’t think the play needs that. I think I would explain to him [Wilde] what’s been going on since he died. I think he might be a little annoyed that his plays are handled with so much care, revered and feeling a little dusty. I don’t read them as dusty, but there’s certainly that kind of production. Wilde might have fun seeing one of the plays defiled a bit. He was always stabbing at and messing around with conventions himself.


He was a showman, after all.

I’m an Anglophile, and I especially love the English writers who aren’t really English, who came there and worked. [Wilde grew up in Ireland, of course.] And I think there’s a bit of an outsider to him; someone who’s very suspicious of the status quo and society, and yet who also completely indulges in it. He can sit there and make fun of how people dress, what they eat and drink, what they talk about—but he really fit into that society, a kind of Truman Capote figure.

I also like fun bourgeois things, and at times feel both inside of that world at a dinner party, and also outside of it, like I’m theater trash who somehow broke into the party because I can talk a certain way or dress a certain way. I feel like it directly relates to now; there are a lot of people in our world who come from some kind of money or privilege who aren’t inherently shallow or bad people, but who find themselves bored or spending time on things that don’t matter. Yet the result of that can be awesome new cocktails, or really great new restaurants, and these people let us know about it all. They add fun and culture and life to the world.

None of it connects to their souls necessarily, and there’s some hypocrisy in it at times—but also a lovely sort of innocence as well. Wilde’s characters are really fun to be around, yet at other times you feel ‘Oh, my God!” please think about something that matters, say something that matters!


Photo: Matt Mzorek
Wilde/Earnest at Kitchen Dog Theater


So, you’re saying you didn’t have to travel very far to find today’s hipster version of Wilde’s characters in The Importance of Being Earnest?

No, and I would also say that I’m like that myself sometimes, and so are a lot of my friends. Many days it’s one of the more exciting things about living in a big city and having interesting friends, yet at other times you think, we can’t keep talking about this Quentin Tarantino movie—other things are happening in the world.


What’s the modern equivalent of stuff they obsess about in the original play—the muffins, for instance?

The cucumber sandwiches in Earnest were what I thought about—and Bagel Bites and Nutter Butters are the [modern version], entirely chosen for their specificity. There’s nothing like a hipster who announces that he/she is completely into something retro. And they’re adorable—popping a Nutter Butter or a Bagel Bite is just so cute. If you went to a fancy party and they were serving Bagel Bites, you’d think, “I would never have thought of doing that!” So adorable and weird.


And ironic?

Yes, there’s always a wink that goes along with it.


As you adapted, what did you do with Wilde’s distinct, precise language? Wilde/Earnest sounds so physical and action-packed. Were you trying to do a modern riff on the words, too?

I’d say 75 to 80 percent of the dialogue is still from the original play, with a lot of little word changes. Some are there to replace a word that’s simply too old-fashioned for a modern audience to track. But most of the changes are there to pop the older language, and because they’re funny—like an “OMG” that’s in full contrast to the rest of a line. There is a whole new speech that’s completely me, but I’ve tried to write it in the way Oscar Wilde would have written. It’s very knowing and winking and meta in explaining a key plot point.


I don’t want to set up an either-or situation, between enjoying straight-up productions of the classics, or the kind of “blowing up” adaptation you’re doing here. But where do you see audiences landing along this spectrum? Obviously, people can like both.

I think my first job is to make our play as funny and wild as possible. So my hope is if an audience member has any kind of walls put up, we can quickly demolish those with our sheer exuberance and wit.

And also, I don’t see the original Importance of Being Earnest having any problems getting produced. It exists, and was written in a country that takes good care of their words. And because of that, in England they care a lot less about this issue than they do in America. British audiences see the original all the time; they can get it online for free. There are access points to the play everywhere.

To me, any notion that Earnest is a masterpiece that can’t be touched just isn’t right. I hope I get to direct the original version sometime. I love it. But our play is its own highly theatrical experience that I think will overwhelm any suspicions.


Are rehearsals being fun?

Very fun—we have the trampolines in already, and currently [props designer] Samantha Rios and I are digging through old Kitchen Dog props to see what we can throw into the show.


I’d like to see actors jumping on trampolines while reciting Wilde’s original dialogue!      

[Laughs.] They’re already doing it—that’s why we got the trampolines and the roller skates in early.


You have local singer-songwriter Jencey Keeton of the band French 75 composing original music, and Danielle Georgiou providing choreography, too.

I knew Jencey when she worked for ATTPAC a while ago. She does such interesting music, and when we talked about this play, she told me about some songs she’d been toying around with. I listened, and they were in a very specific style, doo-wop with layered-on electronica. I thought they were both interesting and theatrical, and so we started collaborating. Danielle is someone whose work is playful and flirty and also a little aggressive at the same time, which I think is fun. Wilde himself was all those things. 

I like to collaborate with women. They bring a stronger—and often better—insight into what I’m working on. A bunch of guys in the room tend to congratulate each other, but  women push you, inspire you, ask different questions, and get the work done.

I also like people who don’t really do theater. Our set designer Rob Wilson has never done a set design. You should look up his website; he does really amazing cards and graphic designs. I try to get as many crazy and specific aesthetics as possible all in the room together. It’s a lot of fun.


Oscar Wilde’s career and life ended badly, and one of the many sad facts about that is that he’d probably have had a happy, productive career if he’d lived today, when it’s entirely possible to be a gay man and a great playwright. Do you feel the play is informed by Wilde’s complicated life?

Yes. There’s that sense that someone is making up the rules to society, and making them up almost right in front of you. And the minute you think you’ve learned all the rules, they make up another one. But the rule almost always is about the person you should be, and not about the person you are. Like I said earlier, sometimes that comes with exciting knowledge about the best places to eat, the best art to look at, the best way to behave socially, and it can include a lot of fun conversations and flirting and getting people to like you.

But on top of that, I think, there’s a level of [expecting] you to change who you are. In Wilde/Earnest I include some of my own thoughts about marriage, about gender relations, about sexuality. I think whether or not I can say for sure they would be Wilde’s own politics and opinions, I can say very clearly that my opinions and thoughts are inspired by working on this piece. Thanks For Reading

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The Lightness of Being (Earnest)
Writer and director Lee Trull on Wilde/Earnest, his freely adapted, updated take on The Importance of Being Earnest, opening this week at Kitchen Dog Theater.
by Jan Farrington

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