Lady Windemere's Fan, a CurtainUp Berkshire Review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review

Lady Windemere's Fan
Unfortunately our present zeitgeist has much in common with the Victorians-- and a certain kind of Puritanism is running amok. So in that sense Wilde's work remains as valid, poignant, and as incisive today as it was when it was first written. --- director Moisés Kaufman.
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Samantha Soule and Jean Smart
Jean Smart & Samantha Soule
(Photo: Richard Feldman )
When I first heard that Williamstown Theatre would launch the first season in its brand new Main Stage and under the leadership of Roger Rees with Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, I was a bit disappointed. Much as I enjoy Wilde's epigram rich plays, I couldn't help wishing for something newer than the playwright's first stage success -- a soap opera-like farce about a daughter who suspects her husband of having an affair with a woman who is actually the mother she thinks died when she was an infant, with misunderstandings caused and resolved through the device of a fan inconveniently showing up in a bachelor's quarters.

When I saw that Moisés Kaufman would be directing, a little "A Hah" light went on. After all Kaufman is the man who gained instant recognition with quite a different Wildean venture, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (review) and also helmed a documentary drama, The Laramie Project (review) as well as I Am My Own Wife, (review), the first solo play to win a Pulitzer. If anyone could give this more than a century old play (1892) a fresh twist or two, Kaufman would be the man to do it.

As it turns out, Kaufman has opted to mount Lady Windemere's Fan without any attempts to modernize -- and, savvy director that he is, he's made a wise choice. Wilde's commentary on an uptight society's hold on people's life choices still has something to say to anyone willing to look beneath its frothy, farcical wrapping. And Mr. Kaufman proves himself adept at giving a fresh polish as well as depth to Wilde's somewhat creaky plot so that we get a sense of the play as Ibsen à la Mot, with Mrs. Erlynne reminding us more than a bit of Nora many moons after slamming the door on her Doll's House.

Though not as frequently revived as The Importance of Being Earnest and The Ideal Husband, Lady Windemere and her fan have intrigued several leading theater companies in recent years, two of them reviewed at CurtainUp. Thus, instead of repeating plot details, I refer you to the two reviews that cover them quite thoroughly: one that featured a real mother and daughter, Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson, as Mrs. Erlynne and Lady Windemere in 2002 and one currently running at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC.

This production's Mrs. Erlynne is television's "designing woman" Jean Smart. She fully lives up to her name as Wilde's version of a Victorian designing woman who has more honor than a lot of the "good" society ladies who scorn her company. Samantha Soule's Lady Windemere doesn't quite rise to the demands of the young but strong-minded young woman who decides to fight infidelity with infidelity though she does gain strength and naturalness, especially in her big scenes with Smart.

In fact, it's the minor characters -- Isabel Keating's terrifically funny Lady Berwick and Elliotte Crowell's not quite as mousy as she seems daughter -- who pick up the pre-intermission scenes when Wilde's mots have to work a bit too hard to keep the serious subtext from overwhelming the farcical fun. Those major secondary role pleasures also include Derek Lucci's Parker, as on the mark an all-knowing butler as I've seen in a while.

The men driving the romantic complications are all topnotch, with only Corey Brill as Lord Windemere never quite overcoming the inherent difficulties of making the loving but priggish Lord sympathetic. Adam Rothenberg, whom I last saw as a brutish but ultimately likeable truck driver in an Off-Broadway revival of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (review), is an appealingly dashing bachelor eager to cede his freedom for the love of Lady Windemere. Jack Willis as Lord Augustus Lorton is delightful as Mrs. Erlynne's easily bamboozled suitor.

It is when all the men (including Windemere) gather in Lord Darlington's digs (Neil Patel's spectacularly rich second set) that Wilde's wit gathers altitude faster than that surreal chandelier does during the play's opening moments. Like Rothenberg, and very much in the manner of Wilde himself, Chandler Williams as Lord Dumby and Benjamin Walker as Mr. Cecil Graham know how to heap one well-timed, incisive epigram on top of another. "Wicked women bother one. Good women bore one". . ."I never talk scandal. I only talk gossip". . .  "In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants and the other is getting it. " These are just a few memorable volleys sent forth (the first two from Graham, the last from Dumby) that help to make this the play's finest and funniest scene.

The shift from the Darlington's rooms back to the Windemere home is as smooth and slick as everything about this handsome production. Kay Voyce's costumes and David Lander's lighting enhance Patel's eye-popping sets. The violin music by sound designer Andrew Pluess effectively introduces each scene.

Of course, no small measure of the pleasures in seeing this revival comes from the excitement of its being the first play in the Festival's stunning new Main Stage, the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance. This grand auditorium with its circular orchestra and two-tiered balcony seating has the grandeur of an opera house but is nevertheless quite intimate. The much improved sound system does full justice to Oscar Wilde's still memorable words.

I'll report back on the renovated Adams Memorial Theater, now the Nikos Stage (the place for something new to go with this Main Stage season of established plays), after I have a chance to check it out later this week. Stay tuned also for my review of yet another Wilde revival in the Berkshires -he Importance of Being Earnest, which opens next weekend at Barrington Stage in nearby Sheffield.
WTF  '62 Center for Theatre and Dance
Exterior view of the new WTF '62 Center for Theatre and Dance (Photo: Robert Benson )

Playwright: Oscar Wilde
Director: Moisés Kaufman
Cast (alphabetical order): Leavey Ballou (Mrs. Cowper-Cowper), Corey Brill (Lord Windermere), Elliotte Crowell (Lady Agatha Carlisle), Amber Gray (Lady Plymdale), Isabel Keating (Duchess of Berwick), Derek Lucci (Parker), Benjamin Pelteson (Mr. Hopper), Adam Rothenberg (Lord Darlington), Sandra Shipley (Lady Jedburgh), Jean Smart (Mrs. Erlynne), Samantha Soule (Lady Windermere), Benjamin Walker (Mr. Cecil Graham), Chandler Williams (Mr. Dumby), Jack Willis (Lord Augustus Lorton), Liz Wison (Lady Stutfield). Ensemble: Loren Bidner, Molly Casey, Elizabeth Clark, Todd Estrin, Steven Gottlieb, Alexis MacDonald, Cory O'Donnell, Tedford Taylor, Josh Wade.
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Set Design: Neil Patel
Lighting Designer: David Lander
Sound Design: Andre Pluess
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes; one intermission
'62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St., Williamstown, Mass. 413-597-3400.
July 6, 2005 to July 17, 2005; opening July 7, 2005
8 p.m Tuesday through Friday, 8:30 p.m. Saturday; matinees at 3 p.m Thursday, 4 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $20 to $52, depending on the performance date, time and seating location.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on July 9th matinee performance.
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