"Every woman is a rebel, and usually in wild revolt against herself" — Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance.
Often referred to as a "battle of the sexes," Wilde's 1893 play could better be described as an innovative - especially for its time - story about girl power. Its focus on class and the sexes, specifically in relation to social, economic and political equality, is timeless and continues to be relevant.
But there's also a moral backdrop that's highlighted through the play's rich cast of charismatic characters.
The recent adaptation of the production, presented by PaperHouse Theatre, features a cast of 13 and stars Pam Coble Coffman in the role of Lady Hunstanton, the host of a party fit for aristocrats. It all unravels when Lord Illingworth (Grant Watkins) encounters Mrs. Arbuthnot (Frances Dell Bendert), a former lover who he has an illegitimate child (Gerald Arbuthnot, played by Chester Shepherd) with and now seeks to employ. Gerald, clueless to Illingworth being his father, is ecstatic for the career advancement — one that his mother does not approve of. And it's all downhill from there, as the truth comes out and judgments become entangled in a web of gossip.
When Nicia Carla, founder and artistic director of PaperHouse Theatre, approached Kim Parati with an acting gig in A Woman of No Importance, Parati expressed her interest in directing rather than starring in the show.
In turn, Carla took off her director hat so that Parati — an actress who has worked largely with Actor's Theatre of Charlotte and is an avid theater-goer and supporter of the arts — could pursue her passion and use her vision to give the work a clever crafting.
"I always wanted PaperHouse to be more than just me, so it's kind of like 'let me do something I'm passionate about and if other people are passionate about it, then more people will come.' I also wanted to have a chance to get better at producing and have more energy to focus on that," says Carla, who has lent the creative reigns of directing to Matt Cosper and Jim Yost for previous efforts.
"I think of myself as guiding the experience, while Kim is guiding the play," Carla says. "It's also funny, because I was just recently looking over my resume and people that I've worked with as an actor and I've worked with some really great directors, but it also struck me that there's so few women that I've even had the pleasure of working with, so that was an added bonus."
Parati, who jumped at the chance to direct A Woman of No Importance after reading the script, feels the opportunity was her "white rabbit" moment.
"I just knew I had to follow it and see where it would lead," Parati says.
The show led to the Frock Shop — a consignment shop, specializing in vintage and designer clothing. Located on Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood, the house was built in 1901 and creates a cozy, charming environment for the play.
"The challenge, for me, came in the fact that its environmental theater as opposed to traditional theater, where you make the space fit your needs. In environmental theater, you have to work with the space you're given and that was a bit of a challenge," Parati says. "It felt like trying to find the right puzzle pieces, but once we did, it was off to the races. One of the things that validated it for me is that, if you have great people, the work is done."
Part of the work also involved Frock Shop owner Caroline Cook-Frers, who loaned costumes from the shop to the PaperHouse team.
"We're definitely nodding to the period, but we in no way are being purists about it," Carla says, believing that Wilde would approve, given his constrained views of society.
Carla's decision to stage A Woman of No Importance was largely in part of its being a lesser-known work by Wilde. For her, the comedic melodrama is a treasure. Its richness shines through the play's contrast of harsh judgments and a glimmer of hope through warm, loving acceptance.
"Women can sometimes be the hardest critics of other women," Carla says. But there's an element of relief that comes from this script and its dynamic portrayals of women.
"There's the whole idea of having made a mistake and that effecting your whole life, effecting the way you think about yourself and the way other people think about you. But in the end, a woman lifts up another woman. There's no man that comes in and saves the day."