- The Washington Times - Monday, June 13, 2005

The Shakespeare Theatre takes a walk on the Wilde side with a mannerly and genial production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” directed like a well-executed dance step by Keith Baxter.

The artist John Singer Sargent was the inspiration for costume designer Robert Perdziola’s gasp-worthy gowns, and indeed, the entire production looks like one of the artist’s paintings — refined, elegant, moneyed.

The female characters are not so much clothed as sumptuously cloisonned in wasp-waist corsets, bows and lace, ruffles and pleated petticoats, and serious fabrics the color of after-dinner mints. While quite a bit of cleavage is exposed, the effect is of encasement, almost pretty entombment, which probably was the idea behind much of Victorian female fashion.

No one personifies the butterfly-in-a-gilded-cage effect more than Lady Windermere (Tessa Auberjonois), a rich man’s wife and a mother who just turned 21. Cosseted and sheltered, Lady Windermere lives in a black-and-white world where people are either good or wicked. She is unduly concerned with respectability and appearances, much like the rest of her highborn social set.

Her marriage to Lord Windermere (Andrew Long) is a model of politeness and privilege and seems rock-solid. That is, until Lady Windermere’s porcelain world is splintered, first by Lord Darlington (Matthew Greer), a passionate man who gives her a tantalizing taste of what life would be like if one gave in to lust and desire, and second, by the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne (Dixie Carter).

London society is titillated by Mrs. Erlynne, who appears out of nowhere and seems to have most of the men wrapped around her gloved finger — including Lord Windermere. When Lady Windermere learns of the rumor, she responds in kind with some planned infidelity of her own. An angel dressed in scarlet — Mrs. Erlynne — saves Lady Windermere from her rash act and from a life pockmarked by scandal and disgrace.

“Lady Windermere’s Fan” shows Oscar Wilde at his wittiest, tossing off bons mots and witticisms with enviable insouciance — “I can resist everything but temptation” and “Men become old, but they never become good,” to cite two. Wilde, an Irishman, exploits his outsider status to skew the pretensions and pufferies of the upper classes, who sink into their exquisite boredom as if it were a perfectly drawn bubble bath.

Wilde’s wit is at its prime in the party scenes, especially a fancy dress ball where the rich sweep in and out of the parlor saying the most impossibly clever things amidst an atmosphere of expensive tedium.

The Duchess of Berwick (Nancy Robinette) has a pip of a part, getting the most delicious lines, such as describing her more domestic cousins as “making ugly things for the poor” and saying Mrs. Erlynne is not just a woman with a past, but with “at least a dozen.”

Miss Robinette delivers her lines with the right plummy, aristocratic accent, enlivened with just a dollop of rancor. She is ably matched by her nearly silent daughter Agatha (Tonya Beckman Ross), who moves like a dainty robot doll and gets great comic mileage out of the words “Yes, Mama.”

The rest of the cast revels in the social scenes, with David Sabin leading the pack as the somewhat dim, aging reprobate Lord Augustus. Sporting a thatch of badly dyed hair, Mr. Sabin exudes adolescent vigor as a man so besotted by Mrs. Erlynne that he literally sways on his feet when she is near. He is a foolish old man in love, but he doesn’t care — it is the love that is important.

As the foppish Cecil Graham, Gregory Wooddell utters Wilde’s epigrams with natural ease and style. On the other hand, Mr. Greer personifies the other side of Wilde — the passionate man who defies society — in his wild-eyed and fervent portrayal of Lord Darlington. Indeed, the bosom-heaving seduction scene between Lord Darlington and Lady Windermere looks like something from the cover of a romance novel, briefly heating up the overall haughtiness of the production.

Miss Auberjonois is entirely believable as someone who goes from naive girl to a woman to whom experience has imparted not only wisdom, but also a delicate melancholy. As her rival and protector, Mrs. Erlynne, Miss Carter superbly captures the character’s crisp seductiveness and devious ways. However, you do not believe her late-breaking maternal instinct for a minute. Somehow, you come away thinking Mrs. Erlynne is all about the money, not self-sacrifice.

The Shakespeare Theatre’s production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is funny and glib but lacks the great heart and unexpectedly touching nuances found in the production at Baltimore’s Center Stage earlier this season, which featured Felicity Jones as a heartbreaking and indelible Mrs. Erlynne. Center Stage expertly balanced Wilde’s satiny satire of upper-class rules and his astute observation that society bears down cruelly on those who dare to break convention.

***

WHAT: “Lady Windermere’s Fan” by Oscar Wilde

WHERE: The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through July 31.

TICKETS: $12.75 to $68

PHONE:202/547-1122

maximum rating four stars

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