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Lady Windermere's Fan at the Masquers

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By Theresa de Valence - Posted on 05 June 2009

With Oscar Wilde’s writing style as lure, I expected to completely enjoy Lady Windermere’s Fan but my actual reaction was quite different.

In part, I had the incorrect assumption the play was a comedy, so my expectations were upset—though there are many funny aspects. More importantly, much dialogue was difficult—some nearly incomprehensible. Bay Area community theatre management (not limited to Masquers) would do well to reconsider having actors speak in accents which are not their own, as few community theatre actors perform accents well. I’ve discussed this at http://tinyurl.com/pf8vzr

The screenplay of Lady Windermere’s Fan, originally written in 1892, has been reset to the 1950s. Directed by Patricia Inabnet.

From my limited experience as a theatre enthusiast, I’m evolving a theory about community theatre actors specializing in one or more roles. It’s more than just age or sex, rather the style of the character’s temperament. In the evolution of a performance, it could be the actor adds what s/he knows about portraying a personality, using a personal expertise to improve the role’s impact. Some actors interest us by performing a variety of roles, others give us enormous pleasure by performing a familiar role expertly.

One undisputed queen of a well typecast role is Loralee Windsor as a seemingly polite—though acid-tongued—grand dame. As the Duchess of Berwick, Loralee is brilliant. A noble lady, with a commanding manner and clear, comprehensible speech.

The Duchess is a great scandalmonger, well-disguised under a layer of conventional politeness. She displays an uncanny ability to prolong her victim’s anxiety with circumlocutions and is able to carry on entire conversations—single-handedly—by insinuation. In fact, the Duchess would likely protest that she had never said anything offensive about anyone—which would be true as long as one took her words literally.

Loralee deserves to be the Actress Most Enjoying Herself, but as she’s such a perfect Duchess, she would probably find the pleasure improper, and possibly scandalous.

Lady Agatha (Laura Morgan, also Assistant Director) is a compliantly submissive adolescent which has amusing aspects.

Lady Agatha has few lines. In previous roles, Laura has demonstrated an expertise in communication without speech, so I expected to see lots of action from her lucid eyebrows, which Makeup had thoughtfully darkened for this production. Alas, I was mostly disappointed, but Lady Agatha has one memorable mutinous action which produces shouts of laughter from the audience.

Lady Agatha’s beau, Mr. Hopper (Tom Accettola), is a completely incomprehensible Australian. However, it didn’t really matter—the Duchess of Berwick has enough commanding presence to complete all sides of the conversation for herself, Mr. Hopper, and Lady Agatha.

Mr. Hopper often diverges from traditional male attire, possibly because he’s a demmed ferriner, or possibly he is less bound by convention than other caricatures in this play. He is very handsome as he deftly parades Lady Agatha around on stage, intent on winning her admiration.

Lady Windermere (Amy Boulanger, photo, centre) and Lord Windermere (Abhimanyu Katyal, photo, right) are both new to me, so my remarks are made with less understanding of their abilities. It took me some time to comprehend their speech (the accents didn’t help), believe their characters’ portrayal credible, and come to empathise with them—though both performances were ultimately successful. (Photo by Jerry Telfer)

Lady Windermere opens the play in a stunning dress and parades gracefully for our pleasure. She has just come of age, and has all the intolerance of the very young. She is quite outspoken about the areas on which she won’t compromise. In a characteristically youthful way, she loses her composure in stark black and white: her life is the best, then it has become the worst. As the play progresses, Lady Windermere shows a nice range of emotion. She ends up learning that her opinions need some elasticity.

Lord Windermere’s behaviour confused me—due somewhat to the storyline—wavering in and out of credible. I had trouble distinguishing between what he was doing voluntarily and what he was forced into doing. Was he taking his amusements in improper ways? Was he being blackmailed? Was there an act of benevolence? Why?

Some emotional scenes were done well—they were transparent; no longer watching a play, I became embroiled in Lord Windermere’s story. By the middle of the story, I genuinely liked him.

This production sports a few souls with a grand sense of humour, including Costume Designer Linda Woody-Wood, by crafting the ladies of the play to look like what they truly are: insignificant social props—woodwork from which the more significant (male) characters emerge. Lady Stutfield (Diana Godet) and Lady Jedburgh (Linda Ellinwood) are identical in movement and form: gossipy, conventionally pretty, carefully coiffed, and shimmering in interchangeable, sapphire blue gowns.

Mrs. Cowper-Cowper (Janette Higuera), a lady with unconventional looks, has made the choice of distinguishing herself in unrelieved black but is nonetheless a nonentity with the other members of her sex.

Lady Plymdale (Vicki Siegel) is eager to make her mark and stands out in an atrocious, though thoroughly acceptable, manner. She has a few choice lines about the expectations of married life which she delivers with aplomb.

The ladies flit about the stage, but we don’t understand anything they say, like chattering birds.

The gents, on the other hand, are all perfectly cultivated specimens, attired in identical three piece glossy black except for the two misfits: Mr. Hopper as the foreigner and Cecil Graham as the poisonous hot house flower he is.

Parker (Walter E. Phelps), the butler, moves with the doddering shuffle of a very old man, but all his movements are precise and proper. No doubt, he should have been pensioned off years ago but probably refused. Regardless of the commotion caused by others, he’s imperturbable.

Mr. Dumby (Michael Fay) is a perfect specimen of the preferred sex of the privileged class in an English society to which literature has accustomed us: a blasé, dispassionate man who won’t trouble himself to get angry or excited.

Mr. Dumby is a refined synthesis of contradictions: a substantial frame which moves with grace; a massive face with plenty of room for expression but whose emotional reaction is limited to raising his eyebrows. He has several intriguing lines which he delivers in cool deadpan. A deceptively delicious performance.

Lord Darlington (Craig Eychner) is a well-bred but dissatisfied man, who expresses his eccentricities by playing at being trivial-minded, and an outrageous rake. Perhaps Craig is becoming typecast as a man focused on inveigling women into sharing his ardour. In this play, though retaining an unsavory flavour, his manner is quite genteel and new permutations are uncovered.

In Act II, Lord Darlington metamorphoses into another man. He’s still self-centred, but he’s no longer toying with other people—he’s tragic and in real pain. He becomes much more human as a defeated man-of-the-world. This is a powerful performance.

Cecil Graham (Ted V. Bigornia) is the ringer in the woodpile—though foreseeable—considering contemporary society and Oscar Wilde’s predilection. Cecil is the identified misfit: a contrary cynic. Though properly dressed in the standard male uniform, Cecil’s contrariness has him sporting a gold lamé waistcoat. Above all else, Cecil is part of this society—he is terrible—but acceptable.

I had great expectations of Ted, having seen him perform before. Cecil has great expectations from his aunt—he refers to her caustically, yet at her call, he leaps to her side, then dances his duty gymnastically.

Cecil is sharp and biting. He’s an insecure, offensive little man masquerading as witty. My husband despised him. I found him wicked, often amusing—and brilliant. Bravo!

Lord Augustus (Joe Fitzgerald) is completely beyond his depth. He’s not a very clever man and becomes thoroughly confused by events. He flutters—ineffectually, though sometimes amusingly. How he transcends his difficulties is charming.

Lord Augustus is the one truly lovable character in the play. He’s trusting, faithful and indestructibly hopeful. From Lord Augustus comes much of the play’s underlying romantic optimism. This is a darling performance.

Mrs. Erlynne (Michele Delattre, photo, left) is the suspicious wicked outsider of whom we hear a great deal more than we witness. As we come to know her, contradictions abound—what’s true becomes increasingly obscure. Why is she mysterious? Is she as depraved and promiscuous as the gossips say? Are there unknown reasons behind some persons’ reactions to her?

Mrs. Erlynne is a lovely, bewitching woman—a little wicked—but you were expecting that. She is as good as it gets—proof that no longer young women need not fear the diminution of either their charms or their beauty. Jerry Telfer is in love with her. My husband is in love with her. Hell, even I’m in love with her!

This play says a thing or two about what poor hypocrites we all are, but in the end, it offers us what we most dearly need: hope.

A worthy adventure.




Lady Windermere's Fan was performed May 29 - July 4, 2009, at the Masquers Theatre in Point Richmond, California. This review was also published in This Point In Time (TPIT), Vol. XXVIII-1, June 2009, a publication of the Point Richmond History Association.