LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN
Only one Vancouver theatre company has the nerve to open its season on the first weekend of Fringe Festival frenzy. That would be the semi-professional United Players, doing their own thing out there in the wilds of West Point Grey. Counter-programming every other theatre in town, United is presenting a season of classic plays, beginning with Oscar Wilde’s late-Victorian melodrama Lady Windermere’s Fan.
At first this doesn’t look at all like the brilliant social satire of The Importance of Being Earnest. Much of the play is rather earnest itself. But it turns out to have plenty of Wildean wit and ends up cleverly subverting the earnest morality of its central characters.
Stephen Drover’s clear, spare production, set in the 1930s, succeeds nicely in populating the outer edges of Wilde’s world of London drawing rooms where dwell the cynical, salacious and silly. He’s less successful with the characters who occupy the moral centre.
The life of strictly moral young wife Lady Windermere (Melanie Brooks) is thrown into crisis when she learns from the catty Duchess (Heather Cant) that the Lord her husband (Evan Frayne) has been visiting and giving money to “a charming, wicked creature,” disreputable divorcee Mrs. Erlynne (Jane Noble). Lord Darlington (Dustin Freeland), seriously in love with Lady W., begs her to run off with him and avenge her husband’s apparent infidelity. Alas, what’s a paragon of propriety to do?!
As the plot thickens, the audience learns the dark secrets underlying these triangles. By the end we’ll know more of the truth than any of the individual characters except the surprising Mrs. Erlynne.
Noble’s Erlynne absolutely steals this show. Looking, as one of the men says, “like an edition de luxe of a wicked French novel,” she maintains a perfectly insouciant Wildean demeanour. Even dire melodramatic lines like “You don’t know what it is to fall into the pit” drop from her lips like bons mots. Yet Noble manages to convey all the layers of her character’s complexity. It’s a bravura performance.
The toughest job in the show falls to the hard-working Brooks, who comes up somewhat short in capturing Lady Windermere’s studied elegance and difficult emotional soliloquies. Brooks’ flat Canadian vowels are sometimes grating even in a production whose accents are all over the place. Freeland and Frayne’s Lords are both solid, unamusing, moderately wooden manly men.
The Wildean spirit is effectively captured by Cant’s arch Duchess (“Men become old but they never become good”), John Harris' slightly daft Mr. Dumby, and James Gill’s lively, guileless Lord Augustus, who will make Mrs. Erlynne an honest woman.
If you want an alternative to Fringe fluff, this Wilde world is well worth a look.