Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windemere’s Fan” opened at Cal Shakes with the debonair style and wit to be expected with Oscar Wilde, an elegantly staged critique about the nature of proscribed marriage and sexuality. Genius Danny Scheie plays a caustic dowager with the cajones to speak his/her mind. Stacy Ross, formerly Lady Macbeth, plays a worldly yet mysterious alleged mistress Mrs. Erlynne, who seems to threaten the purity bubble of Lady Windermere, played by fair and wide-eyed Emily Kitchens, who is about to give a party celebrating her coming of age at 21.
The voices of the actors project each personality distinctly, Scheie loud, obnoxious and gravely as the Duchess of Berwick and Lady Jedburgh; Ross earthy and wise, her own woman and not a victim or bitter but selfless as she navigates male waters and being accountable for her own past; and Emily Kitchens, adorably awkward, confused and girlish if not coltish although a woman at 21 according to the calendar.
The beauty of Cal Shakes is how the outdoor location literally brings productions to life. Those aren’t wind machines making the Victorian sheer curtains billow, it’s the real summer breeze. Dramatically, just as Kitchens is about to tear open her husband’s private bank book, the wind picked up and animated the set, practically tinkling the chandeliers magically with forewarning and tension. The sun shined on this production as well, the play beginning during the day and as the story moves to the formal evening party, the real moon rises.
Meg Neville designed the sumptuous costumes, most notably the youthful satin peach gown on Lady Windemere. Lady Windemere wears appears ruffled, emotionally and literally. However the birthday gown, although fitted and not allowing for a lot of movement, looked as if the design implied youthful vitality with a flower on one shoulder, an off the shoulder neckline and a swirl of flowers from the bodice to the skirt accentuating her tall and elegant figure, like a spring vine entwining ribbons as if she herself were the birthday gift.
Mrs. Erlynne also appeared as the controversial guest at Lady Windemere’s party in a mature and tasteful, unadorned and gorgeously cut gown of black and white, the night to be a time of reckoning as truth and lies interweave.
The men never seem to come undone, looking dapper in their fine suits all. Aldo Billingsly as Lord Windemere, a detached and soft-spoken gentleman; L. Peter Callender as Mr. Dumby, a crony with the mens’ club; James Carpenter as Lord Augustus, an old softy susceptible to feminine persuasion; Dan Clegg as Cecil Graham and who could have been Oscar Wilde as a handsome rakish boy; Nick Gabriel as Lord Darlington who wants to be Lady Windemere’s friend and later says men and women cannot be so; Tyee Tilghman as Hopper an Australian suitor; Bruce Carleton as Parker the butler.
Director Christopher Liam Moore made the most of this indoor/outdoor beauty with outdoor dancing and private party tete a tetes on the terrace or at an intimate table in the next room, with the main action down stage. Annie Smart designed the light and feminine if sparse sets, one feminine and light; the other a den of masculine near-debauchery with albeit tasteful yet full size paintings of nude women.
It wasn’t quite as maudlin as the picture of Dorian Gray as the women were just lovely nudes, not evil, while the men in the room remained formally dressed in smoking jackets like early self-styled Hugh Hefners. Indeed, one of the nudes in a transparent sheer gown was “The Mirror” by John William Godward. Facades and saving face were running gags but the masks almost came off, not by being outed but by discreet honesty.
Christopher Liam Moore cast the play beautifully and kept it moving with theatricality yet meaning. It’s no coincidence that he cast Danny Scheie as outspoken women; Rami Margron comically as Lady Plymdale, Lady Agatha and Rosalie. Rami Magron attended the party after the show dressed stylishly in a retro man’s suit. Most of the cast came out in street clothes on the beautiful summer night and mingled with fans. Everybody enjoyed a buffet table of crustless finger sandwiches; hot English teas and scones; wines and lovely tea cookies such as lemon bars, soft, tart and sweet. And if I may just say this once as it’s the big line in the play, “I can resist everything but temptation”.
Jonathan Moscone and Susie Falk stood on chairs while Moscone called everyone to listen by not clinking a wine glass with a utensil but by clinking his wedding ring against the café support pole. He quoted Lord Darlington, played earnestly but a bit smarmy by Nick Gabriel, the line about speaking in quips because underneath the surface life felt quite too serious. Wilde also wrote, a man’s good qualities were on the surface where they should be.
Cal Shakes stages “Lady Windemere’s Fan” to September 8, daily except for Mondays. Grounds open two hours before curtain for picnicking. The eucalyptus grove strung with lights holds many picnic tables, a nice café with hot entrees, desserts, wines and beers. Parking and the shuttle from Orinda BART is free.
Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, California 94563. Just off Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Watch for signs on the freeway.
Single tickets $20 to $72 with discounts for seniors, students, age 30 and under, groups.
Cal Shakes also offers twenty tickets for $20 this season for each performance. That’s the day of the show, between noon and 2:00 p.m.. Call the box office at 510 548-9666.
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