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A CurtainUp DC Review
Lady Windemere's Fan
by Rich See
Written by Wilde in 1892, Lady Windermere's Fan launched the playwright's successful series of social comedies, which include An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. The story line is based upon British high society's summer season of parties, balls and other events designed to show off wealth, see and be seen, and to find suitable romantic matches for the young men and women coming of age. Or the older ones who find themselves on the market again.
Lady Windermere tells the story of the title character's 21st birthday. Married for two years and mother to an infant son, Lady Windermere suddenly hears rumors that her husband is having an affair. As an act of revenge, she embarks on her own romantic assignation. Meanwhile, as she believes her sainted mother to be dead, the "sainted woman" -- now known as Mrs. Erlynne -- is actually blackmailing Lord Windermere for large sums of cold, hard cash. Mrs. Erlynne is a "woman with a past" who is not afraid to use her disreputable reputation to pinch a few pounds from her son-in-law in order to secure her own financial future. The goal of which is to marry a wealthy gentlemen of means and re-enter the society that scorned her twenty years prior when she abandoned her family for a rake of a man with whom she became smitten. Soon Mrs. Erlynne realizes the mistaken assumption her daughter is operating under and so makes a fateful decision to protect her child.
Throughout the play, Wilde comments on the unyielding and unsympathetic grip that "good society" actually had on its members. A static hold that kept people fearful of being the butt of scandal, gossip or rumor. For to be disowned and excommunicated by the upper echelons of society meant a lifetime of closed doors to the world that you had once known and celebrated. You were never allowed back through its doors, as it would no longer tolerate you. Entire identities were invested in the sphere of societal orbit and lost chances for social improvement were deadly. In addition, by simply breaking the behavior codes, one lost opportunities in the form of networking for material gain and would forfeit any assistance if one had a downturn in financial situation, such as Mrs. Erlynne had experienced.
Oscar Wilde himself experienced this same situation. Interestingly, it wasn't for the plays which turned a critiquing eye on the foibles and follies of the very people who produced and patronized the performances but for his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father did not approve of his son's gay relationship. Ironic that people will pay you money to insult them, but discover something they view as unseemly in your private life and suddenly they become upset. Which of course was the point of Wilde's play.
From a writing standpoint, Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan is an interesting piece. While Lady Windermere -- by title and number of scripted lines -- would theoretically be the star of the show, with Lord Windermere coming in right behind her. It's Mrs. Erlynne, Lord Darlington and Mr. Cecil Graham who ignite your imagination and gain your support. These are the wittiest and most intelligent of the cast and the ones who see through the veil of hubris and conceit in which the dukes, lords and other nobles wrap themselves.
The Windermeres, so safe and secure in their unreal world, invoke no real sympathy from the audience. Lady Windermere is just turning twenty-one and feels she understands a world that she has never even truly seen. She is a spoiled child, unable to even remove her own gardening apron. Her older husband is not much more savvy, as he goes to elaborate lengths to shield his wife -- and himself -- from the stain of having Mrs. Erlynne for a mother. A stain, which could easily be discounted.
Thus you could care less if Mrs. Erlynne is blackmailing Lord Windermere. In fact you might say -- You go girl! Or that Lord Darlington is luring Lady Windermere to her doom. After a month he would tire of her -- and who wouldn't? And as for gay Cecil Graham -- thank goodness someone has a sense of humour! Mrs. Erlynne sums up Lady Windermere very quickly when she tells her "I may have wrecked my own life, but I will not let you wreck yours. You -- why, you are a mere girl, you would be lost. You haven't got the kind of brains that enables a woman to get back. You have neither the wit nor the courage. You couldn't stand dishonour.""
Director Keith Baxter has created a music box look into a world of high fashion and high morals. The poetic lines flow off the tongues of the cast members and the production has a rhythm that flows well. It's also a subtly symbolic production, whose symbolism may escape the audience. Or perhaps I am just reading too much into it!
Simon Higlett's beautiful sets bring audience applause on their own. The Windermere's classic beautiful home full of gold features -- is actually a gilded cage that traps its occupants within its sculpted walls and lawns. Meanwhile, Lord Darlington's rooms, heavily draped with rich brown velours, seems almost womb-like. Representing the rebirth of both Lady Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne. The first, to see that the world is not so simply defined, and the second to see that she too has a heart of emotion within her.
Robert Perdziola's costumes are lavish and beautiful. White silk dresses for all the women, except Mrs. Erlynne. And black suits for all the men. For Mrs. Erlynne, the color is eye catching red. And thus the splashes of extraneous red -- from the tell tale red curtain that greets the audience to the red stairs and divan that sits center stage -- all create a vivid scene when Dixie Carter makes her entrance in a lavish, silk red gown. Again, the audience applauded simply for the clothes.
Martin Desjardins' movie soundtrack-like composition, which is reminiscent of My Fair Lady, is lovely and flows with the production's artistic statement.
As for the cast, I think there is a directorial decision to reign in the power of the three leads. Whether or not a good one, I have no idea. However, during the first and second acts, which take place entirely in the Windermere's home, each of the three leads seems to be holding back. It's a subtle thing to catch, but is apparent just the same. Yet during Act Three, which takes place in Lord Darlington's chambers, the fuller abilities of the three actors suddenly blaze forth. There is an energy that is missing in the previous scenes.
But then in Act Four when all return to the Windermere home, the wariness returns and there is a decided drop in energy. My thought is, that this is a subtle way of showing how, even in the private home, no one is able to be truly themselves. But away from the eyes of society in the heavily draped and secluded rooms of a lodge, everyone can let their hair down. It's an understandable artistic route to take, yet perhaps not the most satisfactory from an audience perspective. Or it could be that there were so many changes being made up to curtain time that no one was entirely comfortable during the performance. If it was the former, then it is still a part of the production, if the latter then all the kinks should be worked out and everything running full steam.
Dixie Carter brings an enjoyable southern sass to Mrs. Erlynne, "The Lady in Red." One needs to remember that when Mrs. Erlynne enters the Windermere's home for the first time, she is a woman both excited and nervous. Her social and financial future is riding on her reception at this party. Thus she must be captivating, yet reserved. The initiator, but not seen as the aggressor. All of which Ms. Carter does very well. There is a scene in Act Three, as Mrs. Erlynne sweeps out Lord Darlington's rooms -- to the surprise of the group of gathered men -- that is truly worth the price of admission.
As the epitome of the British establishment, Tessa Auberjonois and Andrew Long as Lord and Lady Windermere, present a na´ve, staid and spoiled couple. Ms. Auberjonois' transformation from opinionated child to more understanding woman is believable. Mr. Long's seemingly meek Lord Windermere comes across as reserved and long suffering, but eventually you see he has fight within him, even though it is misdirected.
Matthew Greer's Lord Darlington and Gregory Wooddell's Cecil Graham seem to be aspects of Oscar Wilde himself. Both men present their dandiest selves as they ridicule the society that they are so much enmeshed in. Making brilliant party guests, they are also astutely critiquing their fellow society members.
As the Duchess of Berwick, Nancy Robinette presents a woman in a state of constant withheld rage that is masked in a garb of humour. Like a bird in motion, she never stops twittering. Her lines are delivered rapid fire, almost too fast, as if she is about to spontaneously combust if she doesn't get them out. And as usual she delivers the comic bon mot expertly, such as when she comments on Mrs. Erlynne, "Many a woman has a past, but I am told that she has at least a dozen, and that they all fit."
Tonya Beckman Ross's Lady Agatha Carlisle delivers a constant monotonous look and voice as she vacantly says "Yes, Ma Ma." to any question from her mother the Duchess. It's an ongoing joke that Ms. Beckman Ross plays well.
David Sabin makes a wonderfully na´ve and love struck Lord Augustus Lorton as he fawns and buckles his knees each time Mrs. Erlynne comes near.
The rest of the cast includes: Katie Atkinson, Emery Battis, Louis Cupp, Danielle Davy, Steve Douglas-Craig, Cornelia Hart, Helen Hedman, Patricia Hurley, Teresa Lim, Stephen Patrick Martin, Hugh Nees, Todd Scofield, Adam Shatarsky, Kim Stauffer, Anne Stone, Adam "Chip" Suritz, Darius Suziedelis, and Ellen Warner.
The lavish costumes, sets and sparkling Wilde wit make Lady Windermere's Fan a ride that is well worth taking -- like champagne it adds a bit of bubbly glee to your evening.
Editor's Note: Wilde's play has not been revived as frequently as The Importance of Being Earnest -- yet, it will receive another airing quite soon when it will launch the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage season under the direction of Moisés Kaufman. Watch for our review of that production.
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