“The Importance of Being Earnest” stands as one of the world’s most enduring plays. Written by Dublin-born Oscar Wilde in 1895, the witty comedy of good manners is set in Victorian London and filled with mistaken identities, secret engagements and baffled suitors.
At its heart, it’s populated by characters who create fictitious personas in order to avoid social obligations they find tiresome. More than a century later, Wilde would no doubt marvel at the abundance of questionable Facebook pages and fictitious dating profiles splashed across the Internet. The play shows the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Allison Olivia Choat is directing the latest production of “Earnest,” presented by Moonbox Productions at The Boston Center for the Arts from November 22 to December 14.
A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, she studied opera at Oberlin College and Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Having arrived in New England through friends, she decided to stay.
Here’s a condensed look at our recent conversation about music, her career and the upcoming production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
BIR: Tell me a little about growing up in Tennessee.
AOC: I’m a little bit of an ethnic mutt, as so many Americans are. Everybody from this corner of Appalachia I grew up in is essentially Scottish-Irish, maybe a little bit English. We’re all sort of hard-bitten mountain people who moved from one cold, wet, relatively inhospitable place to a warm, wet, relatively inhospitable place. (Laughs) . . . So while it wasn’t specifically Irish culture I grew up in – it was Appalachian culture – I’ve always been struck by how similar they are. I grew up with a real sense of my family and myself as Appalachian people and as Irish people. Not necessarily Irish people from Ireland, but heirs to this tradition.
BIR: You’re right, there are strong similarities.
AOC: And being a musical person and growing up with bluegrass and roots music, those are the descendants of old Irish ballads and the popular music in Ireland and England and parts of Scotland at that time.
BIR: So you began your creative career as a singer.
AOC: I grew up in a pretty musical family and I thought of myself as a musician first. I began my artistic career as a vocal performer. And with vocal performers, it’s a lot like training to be a gymnast. You spend a lot of time practicing. You don’t go out very much. You go to musical lessons when other kids are outside playing in the sunshine. I went to Oberlin to study opera and sort of midway through my Oberlin career a lot of my teachers were saying, “You should try directing. You should try design. You should really look at the broader world of theater and being behind the scenes.”
BIR: And so you made the shift?
AOC: My vocal development had sort of stalled out, which can happen at certain points in your life because it’s a body part like any other. So in desperation I finally agreed to try directing a show – a musical production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” – and it was probably the most fun I had had in my life at that point. I was just amazed. It was all the things I loved about theater and about music and none of the things I disliked.
BIR: And you’ve been part of Moonbox Productions since its inception four seasons ago.
AOC: It’s been so wonderful. [Founder/producer] Sharman Altshuler and I started talking about this by saying, “Gosh, it would be fun to do a show, wouldn’t it?” I thought we were going to do it in somebody’s church basement. And if we were lucky we’d have a keyboard and I would make costumes out of old socks or something. I thought it would be terrific fun but I didn’t think it would be anything like what it’s become. I feel so lucky to be surrounded by so many people who are so passionate about what they do. And so good at what they do.
BIR: Why was it significant to add “The Importance of Being Earnest” to your season?
AOC: One of the things I’m hoping we can bring to this production is vitality and immediacy. I think a lot of productions of Wilde [risk] sounding like a museum piece . . . I think it’s very easy to get caught up in the language and just celebrate the wittiness of the play . . . comedy comes from character and one of the things that I saw when we were casting was that this group of actors, this group of interpreters, are really extraordinarily vital and energetic people. They bring a real human energy and relate-ability to what they’re saying. And I think that makes the text that much funnier – having a production that’s really grounded in character, that’s really human, that’s really approachable.
BIR: About half your “Earnest” cast members are making their Moonbox debuts with this production.
AOC: I love working with people I’ve worked with before because you do develop a sort of shorthand . . . But working with new talent is one of the things Moonbox is really committed to, working with Boston talent specifically. A lot of the people in this cast are really gifted performers who may not have had the chance to interpret this kind of material before, or to interpret it at this level. So it’s really exciting to work with them and help them find the cadence and the rhythms and all that kind of thing.
BIR: Can you give me a “for instance?”
AOC: Cat Claus, who’s playing Gwendolen, actually comes from a clowning background. She spent a lot of her early years in Circus Smirkus – the [international] youth circus program – and so her comic timing is unbelievable. Her sense of her body and her awareness of her own facial expressions is extraordinary. But at the same time, getting her to internalize this Victorian kind of restrained, controlled movement has been one of the things I’ve able to help her most with. And it’s something that she can carry forward into any other performance of this kind. That’s one of the fun parts about working with a group of people you haven’t worked with before. You can find extraordinary strengths.
R. J. Donovan is Editor and Publisher of onstageboston.com.
Moonbox Productions’ “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Nov. 22-Dec. 14, at The Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont Street, Boston. Tickets: 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com.