By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
As light and crisp as the bubbles in a Buck's Fizz, the dialogue in Oscar Wilde's infrequently performed comedy-melodrama Lady Windermere's Fan stands as some of the playwright's best. "I don't know what society's coming to," moans a snooty duchess, "the most dreadful people seem to go everywhere. They certainly come to my parties--the men get quite furious if one doesn't ask them." And a heartsick but optimistic bachelor named Lord Darlington surmises, "We're all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
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More than 100 years old, Wilde's play about scandal, rumor, gossip and marital infidelity hasn't lost any of its effervescent effects. Disappointing then that Rover Dramawerks' production, now onstage at Plano's ArtCentre Theatre, falls a bit flat, not quite as low as the gutter, but certainly well short of the stars.
The performances, for the most part, are not the problem. The Dramawerks cast is adept at speaking with hoity-toity British accents and at delivering Wilde's torrents of bon mots with a certain relaxed panache. Several genuinely moving moments in this play of morals and manners require actors to maneuver quick swerves in tone and emotion, and this cast manages those, too.
In the title role, Audra Hatchett is both coquettish and fiery, just what the part requires. Alison Davies is delightful as the pushy, dotty Duchess of Berwick. Ben Schroth, Jason Morgan and Matthew J. Edwards make the most of their smaller roles as snobby twits, characters enriched with Wilde's personal point of view and cynicism (and usually played by much older actors). Paige Reynolds, as a mystery woman embroiled in sexual intrigue, brings physical grace and vocal dexterity to her performance, although her garish makeup looks more East End than Grosvenor Square.
Which brings us to the visuals. The failures of this production lie in its amateurish design elements. Rover Dramawerks' director/designer Carol M. Rice, strapped for funds or short on imagination, has taken a late-19th-century play about handsome, upper-class Londoners, dressed these fashionable denizens in baggy Little House on the Prairie outfits and plopped them onto a colorless, boxy set stocked with clunky 1950s coffee tables and wing chairs. Lady Windermere's drawing rooms beg for coziness and a warm, evocative glow. Rice gives them bare floors, bed-sheet curtains and lighting as flat and unflattering as a police lineup wall.
Sure, sure, this is a small theater company struggling to mount shows on precious little coin. Why pick apart the aesthetics? Because they're not doing radio, that's why. And because Wilde's elegant, tasty words deserve to be served like champagne, not root beer.
It's one thing to create simple, Victorian-era women's frocks out of inexpensive fabrics (as designer Thomas R. Jaekels did beautifully for Echo Theatre's recent production of Cloud Nine) and quite another to take so little care in designing and sewing the women's clothes that they end up looking like wrinkled hootenanny dresses. Uneven hems. Puckered seams. Just awful. The men of Lady Windermere's Fandon't fare any better. They're buttoned into ill-fitting 1980s tuxedos whose cuffs puddle in great rings around their ankles. It's as if Rice plundered the high school drama club closet.
Aside from the parsimonious fittings, the play itself is a joy worth rediscovering. Wilde, always an astute commentator on the ways of the rich and ruthless, pairs a naïve young bride, Lady Windermere, with a much-older husband (Marc Rouse). She suspects he's fooling around when she sneaks a peek at his bankbook and sees that he's been forking over huge sums to a Mrs. Erlynne (Reynolds), a single lady in her 40s who's become the focus of green-eyed party chatter and might be engaging in a bit of blackmail among the fox-and-hound set. When Lord Windermere invites Mrs. Erlynne to his wife's birthday ball, the crumpets start to crumble.
Wilde's themes in the play about the damage of unfounded innuendo and the often tenuous bonds of romantic relationships haven't lost a jot. "Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality," says one of the young nobles. Still too true, mon chere.
At the end of Lady Windermere's Fan (the fan itself being a crucial piece of evidence for the rumored affair), Mrs. Erlynne and Lady Windermere must perform personally painful sacrifices that will change each of their lives forever. The women make the most selfless choice in both cases, and there's a beautiful sense of gallantry and civility in the acts, qualities too often absent in the road-rage age.
In this revival of an old gem, the playwright's words are exquisitely intelligent and flamboyant. The sheer joy of listening to them almost makes up for the production's lack of visual flair.
The focus of the play is black-on-black racism in the workplace. John (David Jones Butler, who also directed) is an ambitious, upper-management exec for a computer company that's about to merge with another. John's wife, Taka (Nikol Watts), works in the same office, on the same upward career track. John is a money-crazed stress case, full of anger and invective, while Taka takes a more laid-back approach to work and life.
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