Chicago Theatre Review
After the Ball is Over
Lady Windermere’s Fan – Dead Writers Theatre
Most theatergoers are familiar with Oscar Wilde’s most famous work, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” but this, the playwright’s first theatrical success, is a four-act comedy of manners about the upper middle class, that originally premiered in London in 1892. The play features witticisms and barbs aimed at the upper class, similar to those heard in “…Earnest.” The subject matter may be found in the comedy’s subtitle: “A Play About a Good Woman.” Wilde probes and pokes fun at what society thinks constitutes a good or bad person, while questioning the importance to be found in making such an evaluation of another person. In this production, we see examples of a vast range of behavior and it’s for the audience to decide the moral quality of each character.
The beautiful, wealthy Lady Margaret Windermere is an important member of London high society who’s about to celebrate her 21st birthday by giving a ball for an assembly of her cultured circle of friends. To honor the love of his life, Lord Windermere has given his wife a lovely feathered fan, with her name on it, engraved in jewels. Between the jealous gossip and scathing stories of scandal, the evening plays out into the early morning hours, with Margaret’s fan transitioning from a beloved birthday gift to an incriminating piece of evidence. With an 11th hour rescue by the scandaled lady in question, excuses are made, explanations are provided and all ends happily.
This opening to Dead Writers’ 2015 season is a gorgeous, visually stunning production. It has been meticulously designed, with much credit to Moon Jung Kim for her elegant, pretentiously posh set design (which changes to an entirely new location during intermission) and, especially, the exquisitely lavish and colorful Victorian costumes created by Patti Roeder. The whole production is enhanced by Jeffrey Levin’s original music and sound design and Erik S. Barry’s brilliant lighting scheme.
The problems occur in this thrust staging, however, when director Jim Schneider neglects how certain pieces of bulky furnishings block the patrons’ view. The audience sitting in the two front center rows, particularly anywhere but dead center, won’t be able to see much of this production. A desk and chair on one side of the stage and a large table and two high-backed chairs on the other prevent the audience from viewing anything being performed upstage center. When the actors are seated up center, one only sees the top of their floating heads over this unfortunate furniture placement. For theatergoers, this is a frustrating and inexcusable experience that could’ve been remedied, either by staging those scenes differently, arranging the furniture further upstage or by simply using smaller pieces.
Generally speaking, however, most of the rest of Schneider’s staging works. There are moments when actors upstage themselves and each other, but Mr. Schneider keeps the action of this wordy dramatic comedy flowing. He has cast the production with 25 marvelous actors, all of whom speak beautifully with strong upper class British dialects that bespeak their station. Lovely Megan Delay is wonderful as Lady Windermere, her character journeying from bliss to indignation and horror and back again to loving admiration. The always wonderful Edward Fraim, so brilliant in many recent Chicago productions, is perfection as Lord Windermere. Linda Roberts is a deliciously haughty Duchess of Berwick, no doubt a close friend of Earnest’s Lady Bracknell; and her perpetually harassed daughter, Lady Agatha, is hysterically played by Christina Renee Jones. Mrs. Erlynne, the woman who spurs the play’s scandal and gossip, is nicely underplayed by a genteel Joanna Riopelle. One of the standouts amid this large cast is Travis Barnhart as Cecil Graham. In his long, auburn locks and perfectly tailored evening wear the actor appears to be Oscar Wilde, incarnate. Hopefully audiences will be enjoying more performances from this actor in upcoming productions.
Dead Writers endeavors to present works by or about deceased writers and playwrights, and this seldom-produced comedy by Oscar Wilde is a much welcome play to warm our Chicago Springtime. With a few minor adjustments in staging, this production could be stellar. As it now plays, unless audiences are seated (in frustratingly unnumbered seats) high above the action in the furthest rows, much of the production will seem like a radio play. This is a shame since this talented cast, performing on a beautiful set in sumptuous costumes and hair, truly deserve to be seen and heard.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 17-June 7 by Dead Writers Theatre Collective at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-327-5252 or by going to www.deadwriters.net.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com