Monday, June 04, 2018

Play: Wilde, Wilde, Life

Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde, Directed by Karen Lund, May 16-June 23, Taproot Theatre Company.

The Lovely Bride received a flyer in the mail on this one, and expressed interest. I didn't say no, so I ended up in the theater in the Greenwood neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon. It a small neighborhood theater with a thrust stage, a balcony all around, and seats of the size that make you appreciate traveling coach class.

Ah, but it is Oscar Wilde. Witty epigrams. Scouring the wealthy, pushing the buttons of morality, zeroing in on hypocracy.  Fan was Wilde's first comedy (Salome, censored, was earlier, Earnest was later), and with it he locked in his place as playwright handling heavy matters with comic tones and subtler meanings.

But to be frank, the play itself lurches forward uneasily to start. Wilde finds moral people to be dreary and tiresome, and indeed, at the onset Lady Windermere (Maya Burton) is exactly that - the sort of person dividing humanity into good and bad with herself on the positive side of the chasm. Married and with a young (never seen) child, she rejects Lord Darlington (Tyler Terise), who pursues her. Hers is a virtue untested, but when rumors begin to circulate that her husband, Lord W (Richard Ngyuen Sloniker) is having an affair with a woman of the "bad" quality (Nikki Visel as the fallen Mrs. Erlynne) does that virtue truly get tested. Worse than the rumors, the husband wants the wife to invite "that woman" to the soiree she to throwing and in doing so put the stamp of "good" society upon the newcomer. It feels a comfortable melodrama of unspoken reasons and chance discoveries.

And to be honest, this is one of those plays where, if one simply explained what was going on (as you would, in, say, a healthy relationship - she confronts him, he explains fully), you'd have no play (or rather, a very different one), but no one gets the chance to, so the play unspools through the party in which Lady Windermere chooses to leave her errant husband. But of course things are not as they seem. The action picks up a bit in Act II when Mrs. Erlynne arrives at the party and there is much question of whether Windermere will toss her out, but the language only becomes truly Wildean in Act III, when the male characters start tossing epigrams and bon mots about the upper social classes and things shift into a more engaged, emotional mode.

And in the end, stasis is restored, and all get their happy ending, though now with a touch of darkness. Both husband and wife keep are keeping secrets from one another, and that keeping of secrets keeps them together. Yep, it turns upon itself, and that is nature of Wilde's writing.

There are a couple things I particularly like about the play. One is that the "big secret", the origins of Mrs. Erlynne, are revealed in the second act, with the rest of play being who knows what and how (and yes, there are moment when one in inwardly growling - "Just tell them, already", but it gets pulled off). The other is that there is no true villain per se, unless the requirements of society itself are said to be villainous (which Wilde is getting at). Each character has the chance to be rebel and villain, to be hard-hearted and understanding in turn, judgmental and protective. That continual turning gives his characters a lot more depth and nuance.

The production is fine, the stagecraft solid. Ms Burton and Ms. Visel have to bear the bulk of the load for carrying the play forward. As you move outwards from their dualism, the other characters become more broad and cartoon-like, so they must hold the center. Mr. Solinker is good as well. The play benefits from its large cast, and actors move onto and off the stage quickly, capturing the flavor of the party and swelling its numbers further.

Lady Windermere's Fan is not a Wilde play that is staged with the frequency of, say Earnest, possibly because of the large cast. The Taproot does itself well with it, and delivers a witty, ironic, and ultimately piercing version of Wilde.

More later,