Stage Preview: Helsinki Syndrome’s Oscar Party

Two performance-art provocateurs explore the importance of reinventing Earnest.

Oscar Wilde's last and most enduring play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is all about doubleness—and the author's point of view on the subject is itself dualistic. He pokes fun at the double lives of his characters, exposing their masks and pretenses, even as he seems to advocate his heroes' invention of false identities in order to skirt the moral strictures of their (and Wilde's) society. Considering the double life Wilde himself was living when Earnest was premiered in 1895—a more-or-less happily married man, an extremely happy father of two sons, indulging in increasingly reckless dalliances with the rent boys of London's gay demimonde—the play practically amounts to a public declaration. The outcome of this metaphorical coming-out, of course, was his arrest and trial soon a fterward on charges of "gross indecency," a two-year imprisonment, and social and financial ruin."Earnest has a bite to it," says actress Rachel Hynes, "a lot of needly social commentary," but one of the things Wilde sends up is the very idea of social commentary itself, veiling his satire with an exquisitely, almost defiantly frivolous surface. The play's sense of daring, of giddy play with convention, is one of the subtexts Hynes and artistic partner Mike Pham, under the name Helsinki Syndrome, are bringing out in their theatrical collage based on Earnest, showing this week before a run at New York City's Ontological Hysteric Theater (Aug. 27–Sept. 5).The two performers met in 2004, began collaborating in 2006, and are perhaps best known for their work at On the Boards. They started to develop their take on Earnest during True North, an original piece they performed at Ontological last summer. "We used the structure of the play to help us organize," says Pham, who's currently based in Seattle. "Earnest is a jumping-off point for exploring things we're interested in." The elements of Wilde's play that their fantasia touches on include not only the idea of deception, but christening and naming, the role of the dandy, city versus country life, modernity, letter writing, and androgyny—of necessity, since Pham and Hynes cover all the roles between them."Part of what we do is work beyond our capabilities," says Hynes. In this case that entails not just creating their first piece based on an existing script, but also attempting an ensemble comedy with a cast of two, and performing it in unusual spaces: on the tiny proscenium stage at the Rendezvous, and at Crawl Space Gallery, where they'll share the room with the audience, their props scattered among the chairs and observers invited to wander.Onstage as their piece opens is a handbag, Earnest's iconic prop, and pink shoes and parasols to provide a touch of camp. Hynes, who's currently studying in London, displays a flair for accents, channeling Dame Edith Evans' Lady Bracknell, and performs a rap that shows a kinship between the verbal dexterity of hip-hop and of Wilde's dialogue. Pham and Hynes divert from the original text in imaginative ways. In Wilde's script, his character Jack finds a lost cigarette case, remarking "I have been writing frantic letters to Scotland Yard about it," and Pham hilariously imagines the content of one of those letters. The two obsessively repeat a brief scene, just four or five lines, trying out different inflections with increasing frenzy. The clash of Cecily and Gwendolen—Earnest's twin ingenues, both mistakenly in love with the nonexistent Ernest—is translated into a sort of vogue-ing dance routine. (Aaron Finkelstein's sound design consists mostly of songs by another androgynous rebel, Prince.)The blueberries in this muffin are the still-scintillating fragments of Wilde's text—not only Earnest but De Profundis, the long letter he wrote in prison to his willful, ruinous lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde's tua culpa is here surreally mirrored by Godzilla's imagined apology for destroying Tokyo, which incorporates quotes from the lyrics of "Purple Rain." But even taken this far afield, the delights of Wilde's mastery of language show through. Hynes and Pham, in all their work's madness, find a balance between surface frothiness and pointed subtext, and a sheer theatrical panache, that Wilde would no doubt recognize as his

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