At one point or another, most theater troupes buck tradition by employing the concept of non-traditional casting - that is, hiring actors to play roles written for a different age, gender or race. One example coming to Broadway in April is a version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" with an African-American cast. Playing with gender can be tricky, but American Heartland Theatre's current production of an Oscar Wilde classic features as the female lead the male actor Jim Korinke.
For actresses of a certain age, there are perhaps no roles more coveted than that of Lady Bracknell, the priggish, pretentious grande dame of Oscar Wilde's classic comedy The Importance of Being Earnest. Having been played by such real Dames as Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, the character became the property of actor Brian Bedford for a critically acclaimed Stratford Shakespeare Festival production that moved to Broadway for a good part of 2011.
The Lady Vanishes
Opening this week with similarly quirky casting is the American Heartland Theatre's production, starring local theater veteran Jim Korinke, who explains after a recent rehearsal how he thinks audiences might first react. "Of course, they're going to see it in the program, and their initial reaction - because I do make the homeliest woman you've ever seen in your life - they're going to pause, take a moment to laugh at that," he says. "But as soon as - I think, I hope - as soon as she opens her mouth, that will go away."
Given that audiences may have to take a minute to adjust, he says it's important to him that he approach the role in a way that has nothing to do with drag or camp but, rather, honesty and respect.
"To play up the camp of a man doing the role - that, I couldn't do," he says. "If that had been a condition, I would have turned it down. You have to find the woman beneath there, the woman that's there in the lines. It would be disrespectful to Mr. Wilde to do her otherwise.
"She has to be real. And they can't be listening to these gorgeous words if what they're thinking is, Oh, isn't he funny. He looks this, looks that, he looks like the ugliest woman I've ever seen. Being aware that it's a man doing a woman. I don't like that."
Wilde at Heart
In college, Jim Korinke played Algernon, one of the young male protagonists who goes up against the formidable Lady Bracknell. Some 40 years later, he describes the woman he's now playing in the context of what Oscar Wilde intended with the play - a sharp stick in the side of the increasingly vulnerable British aristocracy.
"She represents the very things that he felt needed to be said about the ruling classes," Korinke says. "And I don't mean that begrudgingly. He felt, sadly, that the only way I can get it produced is to do it as a comedy. But he was so brilliantly clever, I don't think they were aware of the depths of what he was saying about them.
"Across the world, the British Empire was beginning to shrink. They had a facade to uphold, and she does that gloriously in this thing."
Wearing it Well
After rehearsing a few days in street clothes, Korinke says that when costume designer Sarah Oliver brought in a pair of period women's shoes (and all the show's costumes are true to period), it helped him get closer to personifying the woman his acting would have to deliver.
"The first three or four days, even though I'd had a fitting, the lines were coming harder; the arc was harder to find," he recalls. "And I swear to you, she came in with the shoes - I don't know how they walk in them - the hosiery, and a rehearsal script. And I put them on, and it was like somebody just opened the door between masculinity and femininity."
Though Lady Bracknell is rarely played by a man, Korinke is coincidentally donning women's wear again this summer to play Edna Turnblad, a woman's role meant to be played by a man, in the New Theatre's production of Hairspray.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs through April 15th at American Heartland Theatre in Crown Center.
The “Artists in Their Own Words” series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.