The California Shakespeare Theater has made its name by mounting inventive, modern productions of classics. Last year’s “Hamlet,” directed by Leisl Tommy, managed to find a thought-provoking and convincing reason for a set consisting of an empty and rank swimming pool: It provided the stage with multiple levels and helped emphasize the meta-theatrical components of the play. This year’s “Romeo and Juliet” found a way for experienced Shakespearean actors to convincingly portray teenagers through movement and voice work and to use lighting to emphasize the passage of time and the rashness of the actions. Given the company’s track record, it was disappointing to find that Christopher Liam Moore’s production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” was very much museum theater: competently put together, but without a fresh take.
The first of Oscar Wilde’s four plays, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” often feels like a first draft for his later and better plays like “An Ideal Husband” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.” We see the appearance of what will become stock characters – the nonsense-talking Dandy (Cecil Graham in “Fan,” Algy in “Earnest”), the difficult aristocratic matriarch (Duchess of Berwick in “Fan,” Lady Bertram in “Earnest”), the wanton woman (Mrs. Erlynne in “Fan,” Mrs. Cheevley in “Husband”) and the good and devoted wife who takes a misstep (Lady Windermere in “Fan,” Gertrude in “Husband”) – but the version of them in “Fan” is less rich than those in the later plays.
When Cecil Graham (Dan Clegg) decries serious moralizing talk – “Now, I never moralize. A man who moralizes is usually a hypocrite, and a woman who moralizes is invariably plain” – one can’t help but wish we were instead hearing Lord Goring proclaim in “An Ideal Husband,” “I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about.”
As the title of the play suggests, there is much ado about Lady Windermere’s fan, which ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time and could be quite incriminating. It all begins when the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne (Stacy Ross) shows up in town and seems to be spending too much time with Lord Windermere (Aldo Billingslea), causing much gossip. When his wife, the picture of womanly perfection – good in all things – discovers this (Emily Kitchens in the most plain role she’s had at CalShakes to date), she almost considers leaving him, which sets about a series of mistaken identities and humorous plays. But it also leads to a grating amount of moralizing, despite Cecil’s early proclamation of how tedious it is.
Instead of letting the silly action do the work of satire as he does in his later plays, Wilde forces his characters to talk through their situations too much. And in Moore’s production, the talk slows down the action, since it’s delivered for maximum dramatic effect: Occasionally, we forget we are watching what is meant to be a comedy, considering how long it’s been since the last laugh.
The cast competently pushes through a clunky production of a clunky script: We do laugh at most of the witticisms, and the characters are as convincing as the two-dimensional parts will allow them to be. But rarely does the production sparkle or provide us with something unexpected or modern. It is Wilde as one might think Wilde would have been 100 years ago, and these portrayed cahracters are not recognizable. The one exception, and indeed the highlight of the play, is Danny Schie’s Duchess of Berwick, a role he plays like a drag version of the Dowager Countess of “Downton Abbey.” Like Maggie Smith, Schie perfectly projects a mix of snobbery and self-interest, which injects every line with life and humor. He finds the perfect pacing for everything, and he manages to move like an elderly woman and speak in a believably high enough pitch. It’s a stellar performance, and enough to save the play from this otherwise flat production.