With all of the cavernous Festival Theatre to work with—few of the staging effects would have been possible in the more intimate confines of the Royal George or Court House—director Peter Hinton and his stellar design team (sets: Teresa Przybylski, costumes: William Schmuck, lighting: Louise Guinand, sound: Richard Feren) have come up with a production that is an absolute pleasure to view but not as much to follow.
As is frequently becoming more common (witness the opening of this season’s Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival—cross-reference below), the dreaded audience cautions (cellphones, candy wrappers, et cetera) appeared to come from beyond the grave as a scratchy “recording” of Oscar Wilde made the hopeless plea (within seconds a very crinkly lozenge bag was brutalized just two rows back).
Somewhat foreshadowing the rest of the night, the laugh was there, but the desired result failed to materialize.
To start, a fashion parade of fan-sporting women (alongside a very baby grand from which various bits of salon fare emanated) made its way in front of the curtain—a visual teaser as to the fabrics, hues and posturing to come (the inspiration for much of the show’s “look,” according to the house program, with an artist or so per act: Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Giovanni Boldini, Edgar Degas, James Tissot, Paul Gauguin, Mary Cassatt).
The first curtain-rise intriguingly framed just part of the stage in black, curiously appealing to voyeurs everywhere if perhaps robbing some patrons of ideal sight lines.
Along with key lines from the play projected above or to the side of the action (have we just invented “Curtitles”?) the look and feel would be right at home for second-screen devotees who must have real-time commentary alongside the main event. As fun as this technique was at first, it soon lost its original appeal save and except for the opera box “shot” which, had it been done as a one-off, would have been a magnificent, creative gem.
With such a feast for the eyes engaging the opening night crowd, it wasn’t surprising that Wilde’s best lines (“It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”—Lord Darlington’s line delivered with just the right amount of understatement by Gray Powell to fuel the belly laughs) hit their marks but quite a few of the subtler asides (“A man who moralizes is a hypocrite, and a woman who does so is invariably plain.”) couldn’t compete with their splendid surroundings.
Since Lady Windermere’s Fan is chockablock full of the emerging master’s pithy social commentary, those unfamiliar with the text couldn’t really know what they missed even as the next stunning tableau captured the lion’s share of their attention.
Perhaps a cross-playwright séance might be arranged with Madame Arcati (cross-reference below) to get Wilde’s take on the outcome.
Nonetheless, this season’s best supporting actor award most assuredly goes to Corrine Koslo for her brilliantly nuanced portrayal of the Queen of Gossip, the Duchess of Berwick. JWR