Monday, September 9, 2013

Posing: Lady Windermere’s Fan

Peter Hinton’s production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Shaw Festival is magnificent to look at. Working with set designer Teresa Przyblyski, costume designer William Schmuck and lighting designer Louise Guinand, Hinton creates a series of images that suggest the work of a variety of painters, mostly but not exclusively impressionists. In the first act, Lady Windermere (Marla McLean) entertains the Duchess of Berwick (Corrine Koslo) and her daughter Agatha (Kate Besworth) stage right – each of the two scenes in this act takes up half of the stage, each room carved into the black scrim – while a curtain blows in the breeze behind them, revealing a terrace with a Monet-like drop in the background. The fourth act, with Lady Windermere seated next to a cradle, quotes Mary Cassatt. The second scene in act one, of Lord Windermere’s study, is in black and white; the single touch of color is provided by a large red ball on the desk that punctures the naturalist detail like the absurdist detail in one of Magritte’s surrealist paintings, while the lighting creates an expressionist chiaroscuro.

But what does any of these visual effects have to do with Wilde’s play? And why does Hinton uses contemporary songs and projections of quotations on the scrim between scenes? This Lady Windermere is highly conceptual, but I found the concept incoherent. And though Hinton is too good a director to paralyze the staging with his tableaux vivants, they’re self-conscious and distracting. In the second-act ball at the Windermeres’, the ensemble continually freezes upstage while we see two or three characters interact below them. You can admire the painterly elegance of the act and still feel that you’re watching a director show off rather than discover something going on in the text. There are ideas in the production, but they feel grafted onto the play rather than derived from it, or else they’re shallow. In the pre-show women in sumptuous gowns (the costumes Schmuck has designed for the actresses really knock your eye out) stroll one by one onto the apron of the stage and take portrait poses with their fans, shifting into new poses every time a fresh woman makes an appearance. We get it: this is a voyeuristic society in which women are seductive ornaments – but that theme that is markedly absent from Wilde’s script. A child’s piano with its little stool sits downstage during the first scene, and at one point Lady Windermere sits awkwardly on it and plunks out a few notes. We get it: she’s still a child; well, that thought is in sync with Wilde’s play but it’s a dopey metaphor. (Here Hinton and Przyblyski seem to be paying homage to the famous doll-house set Ian MacNeil designed for the Stephen Daldry revival of the J.W. Priestley play An Inspector Calls. That was certainly an amazing set – but it too was in the service of a silly idea.)

Scarlett Johannson in A Good Woman (2004)
Like An Ideal Husband and A Woman of No Importance, Lady Windermere’s Fan begins in the brittle, epigrammatic world of high comedy. But though Wilde is still turning out epigrams by act four, the play has long since turned into a melodrama. (The only play Wilde wrote that’s pure high comedy straight through is The Importance of Being Earnest.) Lady Windermere, an innocent whose moral understanding of the world doesn’t move beyond the stated standards of Victorian England – the play was first performed in 1892 – learns from the playboy Lord Darlington (Gray Powell) that her husband (Martin Happer) has been keeping a mysterious woman with an allegedly checkered past named Mrs. Erlynne (Tara Rosling) who resides just on the outskirts of the aristocracy. Lady Windermere is so shocked and hurt at the knowledge – which, as it turns out, she has misapprehended – that she comes close to committing a social sin herself, rushing to the arms of Lord Darlington, who has informed her of her husband’s acquaintance with Mrs. Erlynne for self-serving reasons. Luckily there’s an eleventh-hour rescue, at the hands of Mrs. Erlynne herself, who risks her own future to save the young bride from a scandal that she knows would ruin her life. And as in any nineteenth-century melodrama, the play contains a surprising revelation that changes everything. Ernst Lubitsch’s terrific 1925 silent movie version of the play puts the revelation up front, which blends the melodrama and the high comedy in a more interesting way, though it ennobles Mrs. Erlynne (superbly played by Irene Rich) and makes her character a little less interesting. (Wilde’s Mrs. Erlynne has decidedly mixed motives.) Lubitsch updated the play to the twenties, and it contains some of the most dazzling costumes (designed by Sophie Wachner) ever to grace a movie. I haven’t seen the remake Otto Preminger released in 1949, called simply The Fan, but the latest version, A Good Woman (2004), set in the thirties and featuring a mixed British and American cast, is closer in spirit to Wilde, and it’s a pretty good movie. (Scarlett Johannson and Stephen Campbell Moore give the stand-out performances, as Lady Windermere and Lord Darlington.) The problem is Helen Hunt, who is miscast as Mrs. Erlynne and plays every one of her scenes with the same air of troubled flirtatiousness.

Much of the acting in the Shaw production is fine, including McLean’s and Happer’s in the roles of Lady and Lord Windermere. Gray Powell plays Lord Darlington with an almost existential undercurrent of reflection and fatalism. Corrine Koslo approaches the Duchess of Berwick more or less as if she were Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, but her precise, staccato line readings are entertaining, and Kyle Blair, in a shoulder-length, Bloomsbury-style coiffe, seems to be having the time of his life as the effete Cecil Graham. (Blair, who also plays Sky Masterson in the Shaw’s other Festival Theatre hit, Guys and Dolls, is enjoying by far the best of his four seasons with the company.) But Tara Rosling gives a mannered performance as Mrs. Erlynne; I’m sure it’s a deliberate choice to play this woman as if she’s always playacting, but it’s a wearying one – and to my mind it belongs in the same category as giving Lady Windermere a child’s piano to show she needs to grow up. Some ideas should be discarded in the rehearsal process.

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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