Washington, DC Review: A Wildely Funny Lady Windemere's Fan

"There are only two tragedies in life--one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it....A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing...Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes."

Lady Windemere's Fan may seem like a compilation of Oscar Wilde's Greatest Hits in its dazzling succession of witticisms. Yet it may also be his most emotionally rich play in its concerns with tempation and loyalty, and it receives a lavishly scintillating production at the Shakespeare Theatre. With Dixie Carter as the woman around whom the action revolves, it's sometimes a moving one too.

The play's glittering wit springs from a tale of moral entanglements among the late-Victorian elite, a world in which the appearance of propriety often topped the thing itself. Early in the play, the idealistic title character (Tessa Auberjonois) is informed by a well-meaning but gossipy dowager (Nancy Robinette) that her husband (Andrew Long), who recently gifted her with a fan, is also being too generous with a scandalous woman named Mrs. Erlynne (Carter). When Lady Windemere confesses her fears to the dashing Lord Darlington (Matthew Greer), he urges her to fight infidelity with infidelity. Matters are complicated at a dinner party to which Mrs. Erlynne is invited against the wishes of Lady Windemere. Of course, the older woman has her secrets involving her relationship to the younger married couple.

As directed by Keith Baxter, Lady Windemere's Fan is at its high-style best when bounding along from quip to quip. He has a sure-handed manner of placing his actors at the very peak of their comic timing. Yet there are strong moments of pathos too--as when Mrs. Erlynne and Lady Windemere are caught in a compromising situation, and the former urges the latter not to let history repeat itself.  It's a melodramatic situation, and the play's cue-the-violin contrivances sometimes poke out from underneath like the sharp boning of a corset.  Yet Baxter has coaxed straight, sincere performances out of his actors, and the sentimentality is mostly kept in check.

As the enticing Mrs. Erlynne, Carter gives a superbly layered performance. Somewhat past her glory days but still irresistible to men, she purrs and rasps Wilde's dialogue in a voice that is somewhere between sandpaper and honey. Indeed, there is something hauntingly frayed in her voice, just as there is a hint of a sad stagger in her poised peacock walk; this is a woman who has more than paid for past sins. As Lord Darlington, who comes as part of a two-for-the-price-of-one package of Wildean dandies (along with Gregory Wooddell's Cecil Graham), Greer is plummy-voiced and convincingly passionate. As the Duchess of Berwick, Robinette is grandly comic; both she and David Sabin (as the stoutly roguish Lord Augustus Lorton) perform their roles with scene-stealing, laugh-wringing bravura. Sure, they're a little exaggerated, but who demands total realism in a Wilde play? While Auberjonois is appealingly coquettish in her prim, doe-eyed way, her performance as Lady Windemere doesn't always truly bring across the character's fear that she is on the verge of a matrimonial meltdown.

The sumptuous period sets and costumes in Lady Windemere's Fan are alone worth the price of admission. Simon Higlett's most eye-jolting set is probably his ballroom. Rich in red velvets, gilt and marble, the room is the epitome of leisured luxury with streamers dripping from the globed chandeliers, roses spilling out of golden vases and Japanese lanterns visible beyond the French windows (a bust of Wilde, however, is laying it on a bit thick). Robert Perdziola's costumes are similarly ornate, with the gowns modelled on the creamy satins and corsetted sensuality of those in John Singer Sargent paintings. In addition, they're great tip-offs on character; Mrs. Erlynne enters in a gown that's as red as all of her "dozen lives of sin," while the Duchess of Berwick's is accented with gaudy ostrich feathers. Peter West's lighting, however, is anything but garish.

At times in Lady Windemere's Fan, Wilde seems to contradict himself--he celebrates stylish artifice while also having characters spurn hypocrisy. One of his characters glorifies passion, while the play itself ultimately trumpets the sanctity of marriage. Yet as embodied in the brazen Mrs. Erlynne, Lady Windemere's Fan is about the overlapping of good and evil, sin and virtue. Of course, the sinners usually get more quotable lines.

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From This Author Maya Cantu