Classic Site, Modern Bite: “Lady Windermere’s Fan”

Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.
                                                             — Oscar Wilde,  Lady Windermere’s Fan

In modern LA’s heart (or whatever inner organ the south side of downtown may be) stands a century-old mansion of brick-faced marble.  A tall brick wall guards its two city blocks of gardens and garages.  It was built as a family home.

It’s now one of UCLA’s libraries, housing rare books and documents from the 17th and 18th centuries.  It also holds the largest collection anywhere of materials by and about Oscar Wilde, the 19th-century Irish wit who remains one of England’s most celebrated comic playwrights.

And just now, on the library grounds, the Chalk Repertory Company  is remounting its hit version of Wilde’s first major success, Lady Windermere’s Fan.  (His manuscript, meanwhile, lies locked inside.)

Allie Jennings, Scott Keiji Takeda, Teri Reeves, Peter Wylie, Tess Lina, Jacques C. Smith, Amielynn Abellera, Brian Slaten, Feodor Chin, George Wyhinny, Amalia Fite, Amin El Gamal

Allie Jennings, Scott Keiji Takeda, Teri Reeves, Peter Wylie, Tess Lina, Jacques C. Smith, Amielynn Abellera, Brian Slaten, Feodor Chin, George Wyhinny, Amalia Fite, Amin El Gamal

Really, Lady Windermere’s Fan shouldn’t work anymore.

Like the elegant site, with its manicured lawns and hedges, it comes from the very end of a long, long period of social order.  Almost 350 years, in which England went from Queen Elizabeth I’s sleepy island to Queen Victoria’s world-girdling empire, while its internal social structure stayed almost unchanged.

But a dozen years after Victoria (and Wilde) died, Europe tore itself apart.  World War I shattered centuries of continuity, erased kings and nobles and empires, and collapsed society into a boiling ferment.  Rapid change became what we all expect — yet are still surprised by.

A comedy about a married noblewoman who risks ruin by leaving her fan in a man’s apartment?  Oh, please.  But it works.  Splendidly, in fact.  How, for heaven’s sake?

Partly, it’s due to sheer skill.  Wilde knows how to keep a plot moving, and studs it with jewels of wit (“We are all in the gutter, but  some of us are looking at the stars” – or –  “I prefer women with a past: they’re always so damned amusing”).

Director Jennifer Chang (Chalk Rep’s artistic producing director) and her crews make clever, apt use of the site.  Starting on a sunny terrace, the play moves to a wide lawn for a garden party, to a small half-enclosed recital studio for the climax, and back to the  terrace — now awash in sunset — for the end.  The time it takes an audience to shift settings is just enough to begin chatting about the play, then be interrupted by the actors.  (Though at preview, the Act2-Act3 interval was longer than need be .)

The characters are immediately at home in the grand setting.  Lady Windermere (Amielynn Abellera) is both loveable and irritating in her slightly puritan innocence.  She and her husband (Jacques C. Smith) easily own the terrace and graciously manage their guests out on the lawn, tuning their voices to the open space comfortably.

Brian Slaten (Lord Darlington) creates a strong, slightly modern friend and suitor, stylistically stirring the waters in much the same way as his imperious love for Lady Windermere stirs the plot.  Tess Lina begins with mysterious allure then gathers emotional depth and authority as Mrs. Erlynne, whose secret drives the drama  and whose sacrifice resolves it.

Besides bright epigrams, Wilde sprinkles his script with colorful minor characters.  Spicing his social stew are Feodor Chin (Cecil Graham) as a peppery, amoral politician (“A cynic is man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing”); Amin El Gamal (Dumby) in a dry, jaded homage to Wilde himself; and Teri Reeves (the Duchess of Berwick), wickedly funny as a socialite whose kisses and brains are air.  (There were groans of recognition in the crowd.)

Art Betanzos uses an artist’s restraint, with just enough items to evoke an opulent drawing room (on the terrace) and a bachelor apartment (in the recital studio).  And Rebecca Bonebrake hides lights in the most improbable places, discreetly making the later scenes as clear and gently hued as the sun-filled opening.  Halei Parker’s costumes are accurate and often funny, ranging from quiet elegance (Lady W., Mrs. Erlynne) and tasteful excess (the Duchess) to the modern mashup in which the clueless arriviste Australian (Scott Keiji Takeda, as Hopper) decks himself.

So yes, the intense application of an immense range of skills is most to blame for making Lady Windermere’s Fan flutter and float when by rights it should lie broken in the corner.  Wilde knew how to write a play — and the Chalk Rep artists know how to stage one.

And the play’s ethical center holds, though the world around it has disappeared.  Even in the most cynical times, love is a power to be reckoned with.  It may, when mixed with hormones, lead intelligent people to commit folly; but it also, in its purer forms, guides us to wisdom and sacrifice.

But there’s still more, I suspect, making 21st century audiences so responsive to Wilde’s satiric comedy.  We may have to thank those among us who yearn  for the lost era of great families and estates.  As they’ve amassed their fortunes and gated compounds, they have created a society with layers as distinct — and as impenetrably separated — as those of Victoria’s England.

This time, however, most of the 98% can read, and we go to plays.  Oscar Wilde is no longer the snappy lapdog of the upper classes — but he may have become the biting critic who pulls off the emperor’s new clothes (and the billionaire’s) and exposes them to our ridicule.  Possibly even to themselves.

_______________
Lady Windermere’s Fan, by Oscar Wilde, directed by Jennifer Chang.  Presented by the Chalk Repertory Theatre, at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 220 Cimarron St., LA 90018.

Saturday, Aug. 2nd and Sunday, Aug. 3rd, at 6:00.
The grounds will open at 5:00 for picnicking.

Tickets:  <www.chalkrep.com>