BWW Reviews: Chalk Rep's LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN Returns to Clark Library Grounds by Popular Demand
Back by popular demand after sold-out houses last summer, as well as an editorial vote from LA Stage Weekly for a return engagement and being named LA Weekly's "Pick of the Week" in June 2013, Oscar Wilde's LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN returns to the grounds UCLA's William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles, performed in Chalk's signature, immersive style.
The William Andrews Clark Memorial Library is located at 2520 Cimarron St., Los Angeles, CA 90018 and houses the pre-eminent collection of Oscar Wilde materials in the world, including a typed copy of "Lady Windermere's Fan" with Wilde's handwritten notes from 1892, the year this comedy of manners was first produced. Thus it is the perfect site for Wilde's brilliant examination of status, family values, gossip and loyalty. For more information about the series, visit www.c1718cs.ucla.edu/artsonthegrounds.
After meeting several of the main characters in Act 1, the audience is invited to Lady Windermere's coming-of-age party, intimately following her careful navigation of waves of gossip as she artfully unravels an intricate web of lies. Moving audience members to a different space for each of the four acts, director Jennifer Chang makes full use of the library grounds, giving the audience a theatrical tour of the breathtaking lawns and courtyards serving as a mythical present day London, reflecting today's America. Each location seems perfectly suited to the scene with the actors moving comfortably as if they have really lived there for years.
Again costumed by Halei Parker, the show takes place in an imaginary current day London with very fanciful costumes for many of the characters; a reflection on how you look can determine your social rank. While Wilde's play serves as a commentary of the Victorian upper class and its hypocrisy of manners vs. morals, it is also a play about outsiders trying to become part of the "in-crowd" through who they know. And everyone wants to be part of Lord and Lady Windermere's social circle.
Best known for his role in Broadway's "Rent," Jacques C. Smith joins the cast this year as Lord Windermere, a wealthy man who knows right from wrong but allows himself to be pulled into a scheme that could destroy his marriage to the lovely Lady Windermere (Amielynn Abellera). The multi-racial couple adds much to the modern-day telling, for while the play never mentions race, it still heartbreakingly weighs in on status in the society we live in today. Chalk's multicultural cast may feel reminiscent of the icons of today's social elite, adding contemporary relevance to the play's take on societal values.
Abellera shines as the young mistress of the house, allowing us to see her youthful exuberance as well as her heartfelt insecurities. When she must make a decision on whether to stay with her husband, who she fears is involved with another woman, or go to a man who says he will worship the ground on which she walks, Abellera's confusion is palpable and breathtaking.
Challenging their marriage is Lord Darlington, the swaggeringly handsome Brian Slaten who fully embodies Wilde's line, "I can resist anything but temptation." After declaring his love to Lady Windermere and she refusing him, Slaten exudes genuine disappointment with every ounce of his being as he confides to his drinking buddies, "We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." Could it be this rogue has met his match? Slaten certainly lets us believe so until he casually welcomes another woman into his home, though rebuffed again.
And who is that woman? She who is at the center of all the gossip and lies causing problems in the Windermeres' marriage is Mrs. Erlynne (Tess Lina, a superlative force of nature). Erlynne is the sinner now scorned by society for leaving her husband and young child to run off with another man, a lover who of course then leaves her. Through self-centered enough to have returned to London for financial gain, ultimately it is her mother's heart that rules her life, causing her both pain and great joy. Lina's tour de force emotional performance opens your eyes to the possibility that even a sinner deserves a second chance at happiness when her heart is in the right place.
And although Mrs. Erlynne is a pariah in London society, she has won the heart of the twice-divorced Lord Augustus, the dashing Peter Wylie whose utter befuddlement when it comes to women is both amusing and baffling, until you realize all he has to do is say "Yes" to Erylnne's many requests to be a happy man. I can only imagine that if she had a leash, he would be more than happy to wear it. But Wylie allows us to see the soul of this lonely man, one who will remind you of men who stay in relationships with the wrong person rather than be alone.
Statuesque Teri Reeves takes on the role of the Duchess of Berwick, the uppity gossipmonger who puts others down to make herself feel above them all. The adorable Allie Jennings plays her daughter Lady Agatha who manages several ways of saying "Yes, Mama" and nothing else, other than her cute giggles. She is innocent youth personified. These two reminded me of Chris Jenner and her younger daughters, each having a mind of their own but always seeming to follow in their mother's footsteps, keeping her happy so they may enjoy the lifestyle they love.
There are many wonderful comic characters in the play, all presented with honest and sincere individuality. The Windermeres' staff is composed of their dutiful butler, Parker (George Wyhinny, thoroughly immersing himself in the role, often speaking directly with the audience and reacting to their comments) and Rosalie, their maid with a lovingly brusque attitude played by Amalia Fite who transforms completely into social climber Lady Plymdale for the party scene.
The upper class friends of the three Lords are an interesting group of social climbers. Feodor Chin is crusty Cecil Graham who openly admits his own business bores him so he prefers to focus and gossip on others. He is to the men as the Duchess of Berwick is for the women. One of the funniest moments in the play is when he places his hands very strategically on two female statues as he discusses his opinion of women. Amin El Gamal's Dumby certainly represents Wilde himself, although not played as a gay man in the play as he speaks of the women in his life. But with just a look off in the distance as he speaks, he most certainly lets us see the real man in hiding. The Australian Hopper (Scott Keiji Takeda) manages to garner the gasps of all the women as he enters Lady Windermere's party. He is the new man to conquer, the outsider who everyone wants to get to know. His outrageously modern costume and suggestive movements are eye-catching, to say the least.
Chalk Repertory Theatre is fast-becoming a world leader in shaping immersive theater, along with London's Punchdrunk and New York City's Third Rail Projects, according to Noah Nelson from Bitter Lemons. There are only two more LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN performances next weekend on Saturday and Sunday, August 2 and 3 at 6 pm. The running time is 2 hours. All tickets are $25. Gates will open at 5 pm for guests to picnic on the library grounds before the show. Please bring blankets or lawn chairs and food items in non-breakable containers. Free parking is available.
Don't wait - buy your tickets in advance to be sure you have a seat! For more information on Chalk Repertory Theatre or its 2014 season, or to purchase tickets, please visit www.chalkrep.com.
The cast of LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN