‘Luscious’ production of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ a likely favourite

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Marla McLean as Lady Windermere and Martin Happer as Lord Windermere in this summer’s Shaw Festival production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan.”
— Photo by Emily Cooper/The Shaw Festival

While recently visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake, I attended three plays in this year’s Shaw Festival line-up. The first, “Major Barbara,” with St. John’s actress Nicole Underhay in the lead role, I reported on Tuesday in The Telegram. The two others shows were “Guys and Dolls” and Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan.”

 With plot and mise-en-scene based on Damon Runyon’s short stories recounting the picaresque exploits of the gamblers, grifters and con-men of  New York city in the 1930s, “Guys and Dolls,” now more than 60 years old, remains a perennial crowd-pleaser. Staged in the largest of the four performance venues, the Festival Theatre, the take on the classic Broadway musical is bright, colourful, and fresh, with sprightly choreography, crisp execution, and eager performance. The two female leads are particularly engaging — Elodie Gillett in the role of Salvation Army activist Sarah Brown and Jenny Wright as the lovelorn stripper, Miss Adelaide, together with their rambling, gambling beaux, suave Nathan Detroit (Shawn Wright) and maritally evasive Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Thomas Allison). The production is high-powered, perhaps to the point of being over-emphatic, although one of the exceptions that proves the rule is a quiet and poignant song from Salvation Army drummer, Brother Arvide Abernathy (Peter Millard), advising and consoling Sister Sarah. I doubt that Millard would claim to have the best singing voice in the show, but he creates a poignant and refreshing oasis of sentiment amidst the hustle-bustle of the action.

However, this is not a very nuanced or light-handed production: the stream of throw-away gags, quips, and comebacks, in particular, are invariably telegraphed and underlined. The Festival Theatre is a large performance space, and an audience needs reaction time, but perhaps director Tadeusz Bradecki builds in a trifle too much.

The first time I saw “Guys and Dolls,” a good many years ago at the Stratford Festival, I was seated next to an American couple. When asked what they thought of the show, after a pause, the husband replied, “It’s very Canadian.” The same might be said of the Shaw Festival version of  Damon Runyon: sleaze-free, scrubbed and sanitized, bright as a button. And earning a standing ovation from its matinee audience. Bradecki evidently knows his audience better than I.

 Judging by the delirious, four-star reviews of Toronto-based theatre critics Richard Ouzounian (Toronto Star) and J. Kelly Nestruck (Globe and Mail), Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan” promises to become the hottest ticket in the 2013 Shaw Festival. Theatre critics do not normally reference other theatre critics (at least not living ones), but Nestruck and Ouzounian anticipated my review by a week or so. And they were right on the money.

 Performed on the main stage of the Festival Theatre, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is visually stunning. Costuming and interior sets of houses of wealthy Victorian aristocracy are eye-pleasing in the extreme.

 The visual appeal starts with a pre-curtain display. Five actresses costumed in gorgeous ballroom dresses and carrying splayed fans gracefully enter one by one to space themselves across the stage, assuming different frozen poses, creating a beautiful human tableau. After they have serially unfrozen and glided from the stage, the curtain rises — or at least part of it does.

While most of the curtain remains down, an aperture opens to reveal Lady Windermere in her morning room. When the scene ends, the aperture closes, with a second one opening to reveal Lord Windermere in his study. The intriguing novelty feels somehow like licensed voyeurism.

Finally, the whole curtain rises to reveal a full-stage ballroom for formal receiving, entertaining, and dancing, with ensemble dance being freeze-stopped, with exquisitely complete stasis, while an unfrozen couple will make brief remarks as they continue to dance. Mannered, perhaps; but unexpected, striking, and very disciplined.

Assembling lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses, Wilde conjures up the high (and sometimes censorious) society of late Victorian England, within which develops the domestic drama of Lord Windermere (Martin Happer) and his relationship with his ingenue wife (Marla McLean) and with an older femme fatale, Mrs. Erlynne (Tara Rosling), whom Windermere is attempting to reintroduce into polite society. The tart, if far-fetched, irony in the piece is that while Mrs. Erlynne is successfully rehabilitated, Windermere’s naive young wife (who unbeknown to herself but known by her husband is Mrs. Erlynne’s daughter) is in danger of compromising herself by visiting and leaving her fan in a gentleman’s residence. But her unknown mother retrieves the fan, saving her daughter from social obloquy and perhaps, too, from marital breakup.

 Naturally, the play is encrusted with Wildean epigrams and obiter dicta. “I can resist anything — except temptation,” says rakish Lord Darlington. “Men grow old, but they never become good,” opines the crotchety old Duchess of Berwick.

 Pacing is rather deliberate on occasion, but this incarnation of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is a luscious experience, which must have been allocated a stupendous production budget. Directed by Peter Hinton, with stylish, pictorial set design by Teresza Przyblski and sophisticated period costuming by William Schmuck, this production of Oscar Wilde’s play is likely to be the audience favourite of this year’s festival.

After six days and three plays in Niagara-on-the-Lake, I was back to Pearson airport en route to St. John’s. Being the sole passenger to be picked up, the airport shuttle company sent not a mini-bus but a Chrysler Lincoln. But, life being what it is, the scales of fortune tipped at the airport. My hand-luggage and I received a thorough going over before being admitted to the departure area.

Ah well, swings and roundabouts, ladders and snakes.

Organizations: Festival Theatre, Salvation Army, Toronto Star Globe and Mail

Geographic location: Niagara-on-the-Lake, New York, Broadway

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  • Elaine Calder
    June 19, 2013 - 17:44

    Did you have to give away the fact that Mrs. E is Lady W's mother??