On stage now at the University of Rhode Island is “Lady Windermere’s Fan” by Oscar Wilde. The production showcases the best of what URI’s Robert E. Will Theatre can do, with a large ensemble, spectacular and sumptuous design elements, and a play that offers satisfying doses of wit alongside edgy and insightful social critique.
Inevitably, the iconic figure of Oscar Wilde looms large over the production. Wilde, always self-aware of his public persona, was an aesthetic and a literary pioneer of modernism in fin de siècle Europe. In “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” we observe a writer still experimenting with his theatrical voice. Premiering in 1892 not long after the publication of his novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the play was Wilde’s first attempt at comedy and is a precursor to more well-known later works such as “An Ideal Husband” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” While there is no shortage of Wilde’s unique brand of droll humor in “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” URI’s production toys with the boundary of comedy and melodrama. The show delights in ambivalences, is playfully subversive, but is often — dare I say — earnest.
Set in late Victorian England, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is a satire of London’s high society that calls into question conventional morality at the end of the era. Structurally, the play resembles a domestic drama. Lady Windermere’s young and happy marriage is threatened by rumors that her husband, Lord Windermere, is having an affair with a mysterious woman, Mrs. Erlynne, herself the talk of upper crust society gossip. Although Lord Windemere adamantly denies any wrongdoing, he is unable to offer a satisfactory explanation to his wife, who is now being courted by the romantic Lord Darlington. The play carefully unravels its mysteries, which I will not spoil here, and indulges in delicious irony as secrets and lies are suspended in dramatic tension. In “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” Wilde dances with established ethical norms, twisting the polarities of good and evil while skirting with taboos of the time, including marital infidelity, power structures of gender and sexuality, and the role of women in society. Aesthetically, the play also upends the typical comedy of manners of the time by mapping out this power dynamic as a cleverly subversive morality parable.
Under Professor Bryna Wortman’s direction, URI Theatre’s production is a feast for the eyes and ears, but never loses sight of the play’s underlying complexities. By now, URI’s audiences have grown accustomed to the high production values of Wortman’s recent shows like “The Great Gatsby” and “All My Sons.” Theater technical elements are once again larger than life. Cheryl deWardener’s scenic design is grand and resplendent, from the palatial estate of Lord and Lady Windermere to the smoky crimson apartment of the bachelor Lord Darlington. The spectators were particularly wowed by the technical feat of the Act Two scene change, when Darlington’s living room unfolds and transforms back into the Windermere’s morning room. Lighting design by Christian Wittwer works subtly with the set design, suggesting changes in atmosphere and time of day, as well as bringing to life functioning wall sconces, a luxurious chandelier, and a glowing fireplace. David T. Howard’s costume design is similarly extravagant, with the expansive cast stunningly dressed in elaborate Victorian costumes, highlighted particularly with the evening dress for the Windermere’s ball.
The large ensemble cast, comprising some 20-odd performers, works well together to frame the constellation of relationships between the central characters, particularly the two women at the heart of the play, Mrs. Erlynne and Lady Windermere. The first act ballroom scene introduces the audience to most of these characters who, one-by-one, vividly establish the social constructs that govern this world and its underlying hypocrisy. Most of this is accomplished through a series of delightfully pithy and fast-paced witticisms, well rendered by the performers who take great care with Wilde’s language. The production is clearly attentive to subtle and appropriate dialect coaching, which serves to enhance the actors’ characterizations and is only occasionally distracting.
Emily Turtle and Catia Ramos stand out at the center of the play in the roles of Lady Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne, respectively. Oscar Wilde subtitles this work as a “play about a good woman,” and it is no coincidence that he firmly places the play’s most serious questions on these two figures. Turtle and Ramos do most of the heavy lifting in grappling with the durability of goodness and truth when reality cannot live up to our moral idealism. As Mrs. Erlynne tells Lady Windermere, “ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better. They wound, but they’re better.” Turtle’s performance is earnest and emotional, counterbalanced by Ramos who explores and gradually exposes Mrs. Erlynne’s inner conflicts and contradictions as her relationship to Lady Windermere evolves. Daniel F. Greene and Jake Clarke enjoy a similar interplay as the rivals, Lord Darlington and Lord Windermere. Where Clarke is often serious and dutiful, Greene is passionate and romantic. These two performers also provide some of the most fluent English dialects in the production. Under the direction of Wortman, the actors pay great attention to detail, using gesture to great effect; for instance, Lord Darlington removing his glove to shake Lady Windermere’s hand as he parts with her, or Mrs. Erlynne using Lady Windermere’s fan as a prod at a dramatic moment at the end of the play.
Many of the remaining characters offer healthy doses of comic relief, particularly Valerie Ferris as the chatty and meddling Duchess of Berwick, and Josh Raymo as the witty and shallow Mr. Dumby. John T. Cuhna is especially delightful in the role of the doddering Lord Augustus, who becomes Mrs. Erlynne’s love interest. Cuhna mines plenty of comic gold out of Augustus’ wobbly mannerisms and frequent exclamations of “egad” and “by Jove!” Brooks Shatraw also deserves special mention as the classic Wildean dandy, Cecil Graham. Shatraw’s Cecil is at the comic center of the men’s scene at the opening of the second act, with a hilariously fast-paced run of quips and epigrams. Shatraw captures the essence of Oscar Wilde, most sardonically with such quips as, “My experience is that as soon as people are old enough to know better, they don’t know anything at all,” and “Whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong.”
Oscar Wilde once declared the true aim of art as lying, or “the telling of beautiful, untrue things.” As “Lady Windermere’s Fan” hurtles towards its ending with dramatic intensity, the audience is left with a deliciously paradoxical and disorienting conundrum over the meaning of innocence and the value of truth. True to his reputation, Wilde suggests a rebellious kind of theatrical justice with a resolution that seems to oscillate ambiguously between the earnest and the tongue-in-cheek. URI Theatre’s production more than lives up to its end of the bargain. Come for the gorgeous production values, sensitively-rendered characters, and clever witticisms, but stay for the deeper, universal messages about love and morality, and tradition and hypocrisy, which Wilde confronts in a society on the verge of upheaval.