A handkerchief, given to a lady by her soldier husband, then stolen, turns romance into senseless tragedy in Othello. In Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, the innocuous accessory of the title, a gift by a wealthy lord to his young wife, turns romantic melodrama into wry comedy, as Wilde’s refracted view of manners and society takes a turn on the boards of Point Richmond’s venerable Masquers Playhouse.
Directed by Patricia Inabnet, whose version of that old thriller Angel’s Street was a highlight of the Masquers’ previous season, Lady Windermere’s Fan is reset in post-World War II London, with unassuming grace—and fine costumes by Linda Woody-Wood and scenic design by John Hull with background painting by Gordon Pagnello. Like Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, it combines humorous poise (and pose) with the melodrama of the “well-wrought play” (in three acts) of 19th-century Paris, London and New York, the predecessor to much commercial stagework of the West End and Broadway, and the modern feature film.
Wilde’s last, most famous and original play, The Importance of Being Earnest —regarded by many of his friends and supporters as being an a- or immoral piece of work—dispensed with the pretense of seriousness, camping up in mordant deadpan the preposterous conventions of the genre, skewering its romantic, social and “problem-play” pretensions with a withering insouciance in the delivery of endless and stunning bon mots.
In Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde reverses the polarity, by the final curtain, of the axis of moral judgment (and prejudice) respectively held by Lord and Lady Windermere (Abhimanyu Katyal and Amy Boulanger) in regard to Mrs. Erlynne (Michele Delattre), whom Lord Windermere seems entangled with, while languid Lord Darlington (“I can resist everything but temptation,” played by Craig Eychner), awaits his moment to pounce on the distraught Lady W.
That old vaudeville gag about the dying comedian, who, asked how it’s going, gasps out, “Death’s easy; comedy is hard!”—could be extended: Comedy is hard; Oscar’s impossible! John Gielgud remarked that the trick to acting Wilde is to never indicate that your character understands what she or he says or does is funny—while somehow letting the audience know that the actor does know it is—which gives some idea of Oscar’s real, original humor, bound up with his notion of The Mask. Bernard Shaw refashioned this in his own way to satirize Anglo-Saxondom, attracting the attention of Brecht, who “alienated” (or “made strange”) the actor as a figure in didactic and epic political theater.
In Lady Windermere’s Fan, the trick is to move from melodrama to comedy and back again with the gliding ease of a revolving door. Most of the burden falls upon Mesdames Boulanger and Delattre, with a bit of the load on M. Eychner.
They don’t get away with it seamlessly, but they do maintain their poise—especially Michele Delattre—with a decent deadpan. The cast of 15 plays Wilde’s game with remarkably good form, Loralee Windsor (as Duchess of Berwick) and Laura Morgan (as Lady Agatha) particularly, with a sly mother-daughter act, the Duchess “charmingly” riding herd on her cowed, eligible daughter (whose single, repeated line—“Yes, Mamma!”—is inflected with many accents, fleeting expressions and pantomimed body language), until she’s delivered safe unto the matrimonial intentions of an Aussie nouveau riche, and escapes Down Under.
“I lost one illusion last night: I thought I had no heart—and found I had one.” Oscar’s reverses are more paradoxical—and revealing—than the melodramatic coups-de-theatre he parodies. They’re true humor, characters finding themselves awkwardly otherwise than as expected, a true taste for the opposite: “I regret my bad actions, and you regret your good ones!”
Lady Windermere’s Fan
Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, Friday and Saturday at 8, Sunday at 2:30, through July 4. Masquers Playhouse, 105 Park Place, Pt. Richmond. $18. 232-4031; www.masquers.org