(California Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” plays at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda from August 14 through September 8, 2013.)
Oscar Wilde’s delightful comedies of manner require a special playing style which is marvelously demonstrated in Cal Shakes production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, skillfully directed by Christopher Liam Moore, to great comic effect.
When I was a student (lo, these many years ago) of famed UC Irvine acting teacher, Robert Cohen, the good professor had very specific advice about dealing with playwrights who demand a highly stylized approach. One must, he advised us, try to outdo your acting partners in the style of that particular playwright. In a play like “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, you have to try and “out-Wilde” one another. He was quite right.
It is a glory to watch the seasoned cast at Cal Shakes as each sets out to be the most charming, the most elegant, the most precise, the most witty character on stage, working every possible angle to “out-Wilde” every other character.
When Nick Gabriel, as Lord Augustus, sets out on his seduction of the good Lady Windermere, his every gesture is calculated. His very act of sitting down communicates his social standing and his expert control of the social milieu. Who could do it better? Nobody, except perhaps Dan Clegg as Cecil Graham. Surely, Clegg (who scored a great success earlier this season as Romeo) is the epitome of drawing room perfection and classiness. Don’t bet on it, because when the great L. Peter Callender appears as Mr. Dumby, all bets are off. Callender damn near out-Wilde’s the lot of ’em. It is difficult to describe just how much fun this all is.
Well, Callender has a challenger in Danny Scheie whose gender-bending role as the Duchess of Berwick (clearly a close relative to Lady Bracknell from “The Importance of Being Ernest”) may be the funniest performance you’ll watch this decade.
Stacy Ross, as the seductive, mysterious, perhaps very bad woman Mrs. Erlynne floats through the proceedings with the aplomb of Disney’s Snow White, which is just right. James Carpenter as her bumbling suitor, Lord Augustus, is a hoot.
As the Lord and Lady Windermere, Aldo Billingslea and Emily Kitchens bring the right degree of emotional gravitas to the human underpinnings of the story, and make sure that we care about what happens to them, even as we laugh.
The rest of the cast has a ball, and so do we. No doubt, much of our delight is due to the skillful work of movement coach Rami Margron and dialect coach Lynne Soffer whose efforts are clearly in evidence.
Annie Smart’s traditional and effective set design serves the piece well, as do Meg Neville’s excellent costumes.
It is worth mentioning the color-blind casting that is a feature of this production, only to remark that it is completely irrelevant other than as a demonstration that excellence in performance negates any concerns one might have, as it should.
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“Lady Windermere’s Fan” by Oscar Wilde, produced by California Shakespeare Theater. Director: Christopher Liam-Moore. Set: Annie Smart. Costumes: Meg Neville. Lighting: York Kennedy. Sound: Will McCandless.
Lord Windermere: Aldo Billingslea. Mr. Dumby: L. Peter Callender. Lord Augustus: James Carpenter. Cecil Graham: Dan Clegg. Lord Darlington: Nick Gabriel. Lady Windermere: Emily Kitchens. Lady Plymdale/Lady Agatha/Rosalie: Rami Margron. Mrs. Erlynne: Stacy Ross. Duchess of Berwick/Lady Jedburgh: Dannie Scheie. Hopper: Tyee Tilghman. Parker: Bruce Carlton.
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