No Fooling: 'Earnest' Star Makes One Formidable Lady

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    All photos by Melanie Burford/Prime for NPR
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    Ninety minutes before curtain, Brian Bedford arrives backstage to shed his street clothes and begin his transformation into Lady Bracknell, the imperious dowager in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
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    Bedford puts on an old tie-dyed T-shirt and robe, and goes to the makeup table to begin.
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    His dressers have laid out all the makeup in the order it's applied.
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    Before they get started with the makeup, hair and wig supervisor Nellie Laporte helps Bedford put on a wig cap. The wig itself will come later.
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    A Tony Award-winning theater veteran, Bedford puts Lady Bracknell's face on all by himself.
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    Bedford says he finds the makeup process relaxing – "like doing painting, except it's on your face."
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    Once the makeup is finished, actor Tim MacDonald, who plays the butler Merriman, gives Bedford a short neck-and-back rub.
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    Actress Sara Topham, who plays ingenue Gwendolen Fairfax, applies the false eyelashes. Topham is a member of the acting company at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival — where Bedford has played her fiancé, her father and now, her mother.
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    As one of the finest classical actors of his generation, Bedford has put on his share of doublets and hose over the past 50 years. Even ladies' garb isn't entirely foreign to him: He died in a wedding dress in Tennessee Williams' The Seven Descents of Myrtle.
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    Nellie Laporte carefully slides Lady Bracknell's wig on over Bedford's wig cap.
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    With Act 1 approaching, dresser Kat Martin helps Bedford get into Desmond Heeley's elaborate Victorian costume.
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    It takes two people to pin on Lady Bracknell's hat: Nellie Laporte and her assistant Yolanda Ramsay.
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    Before and after: It's taken a little over an hour, but Bedford is now ready to go onstage as Lady Bracknell, whom another character describes as "a Gorgon ... without being a myth."

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As one of the finest classical actors of his generation, Brian Bedford has donned all manner of period costumes. These days he's wearing ladies' stockings — along with Victorian dresses and some outrageous hats — as the imperious Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest. The show is back on Broadway through July 3, in a production that Bedford directed as well.

The transformation begins about an hour and a half before the show; Bedford arrives at the theater in casual street clothes — sweater, sweatpants — and quickly slips into a tie-dyed T-shirt and robe. A wig cap goes on.

And then, in a process that takes an hour or maybe a bit more, the distinguished 75-year-old actor transforms himself into one of the theater's iciest and funniest characters — talking all the while, on one recent Wednesday, about how he came to direct and star in this production, first mounted at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada two years ago.

It was artistic director Des McAnuff's idea to have Bedford do double duty, but the actor wasn't immediately onboard.

"I read it about two or three times, you know, before I gave McAnuff the decision," Bedford says. "And I saw, during the first reading, that Lady Bracknell was a wonderful part."

Indeed, the lady in question gets some of theater's most hilariously biting lines. "To lose one parent," she tells an orphan, "may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness!"

Wilde's satire is a sendup of late-19th century society folk, and a subversive one, too, Bedford notes.

"But although he saw them as being extremely stupid people — and funny people — of course, they weren't that to themselves."

You can't wink at the audience, in other words. You've got to play these people straight.

Brian Bedford and Charlotte Parry i i

Hey, Lady! Transformation complete, Bedford takes to the stage to terrorize Cecily Cardew (Charlotte Parry) and the other characters in Earnest. Joan Marcus/ hide caption

itoggle caption Joan Marcus/
Brian Bedford and Charlotte Parry

Hey, Lady! Transformation complete, Bedford takes to the stage to terrorize Cecily Cardew (Charlotte Parry) and the other characters in Earnest.

Joan Marcus/

'More Than Halfway There'

When it comes to discovering a character, though, it's not entirely about getting into someone else's head. Sometimes it's about what's on your head. Clothes make the man, as they say.

"You know something? They really do make this woman." Bedford gestures at his elaborate wardrobe. "You can see the frocks there. When you get into those things and you get all this stuff on and you get the wig on, you are more than halfway there."

The actor says he's developed his Lady Bracknell from watching and knowing some of the grandes dames of the stage — Maggie Smith and Irene Worth among them. And as he steps into his long skirt, high-collared lace blouse and beaded jacket, Bedford could well be their big-boned sister. But there's one more element to the costume.

"The hat is the cherry on top of the sundae," he says. "And that completes the transformation."

It takes two people — and quite a lot of pins — to get designer Desmond Heely's feathered hat settled atop Bedford's wig. As Bedford practices some of his first-act lines just before going onstage, it's clear that now he is Lady Bracknell in all her terrible, haughty splendor — "a Gorgon," as one of Wilde's characters describes her, "without being a myth."

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