A couple of years ago PICT mounted a drag production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest that I praised in my post on the show for being “fun, sort of campy, … quite funny, [and] also something else, which any production of Earnest ought to be: deadly serious.” What I admired about that production was how successfully the play frolicked in the frothy wit of Wilde’s writing and at the same time plumbed the darker, larger stakes of his critique of a society in which maintaining status depends upon cultivating appearances, in which, in other words, the depth matters less than the surface. With his new adaptation and production of Lady Windermere’s Fan, director Alan Stanford (who was delightful as Lady Bracknell in Earnest) continues to explore the same set of social paradoxes.
Stanford sets his production in 1947, but in many ways it’s a world that will be familiar to viewers of Downton Abbey, giving the cast opportunity to indulge in their most twee British accents, and (even better!) allowing costume designer Joan Markert to exploit the full aesthetic pleasures of mid-century upper-class British dress. The play’s plot is standard farce fare – a mistaken assumption on the part of one character leads to near social disaster, the situation set right by a series of subterfuges and sleights-of-hand – although the chief delight of this play lies not in door-slamming near-misses but in Wilde’s verbal wit and sly social commentaries. Lady Windermere’s Fan contains some of the author’s cleverest and most famous aphorisms (including the line “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”), and the scenes in which his unbearably privileged characters trade snide observations about their fellow elites are some of the funniest and smartest in English literature. The cast at PICT is also at its finest in these scenes – in particular, Casey Jordan and James Fitzgerald capture the essence of Wilde in their portrayals of the rapier-tongued, self-satisfied bachelors Cecil Graham and Mr. Dumby.
PICT’s production is eminently entertaining and beautifully produced – scenic designer Michael Thomas Essad’s elegant unit set undergoes several inspired transformations in the evening, and lighting designer Cat Wilson pitches us into time of day and mood with precision. But the production struggles at times to find the proper tone, often taking itself too seriously. In many places I yearned for more of the camp sensibility that makes Wilde’s writing sizzle and pop. In particular, Jodi Gage (as Lady Windermere) spends too much time wading in the waters of melodrama, her innocence too earnestly played, with the effect that at times the play feels pulled into soap opera territory. The challenge here may be the play itself, which deals with a more heartfelt dilemma than Earnest, but I couldn’t help but wonder at times how this play would look in drag, or at least with more of drag’s mode of playing, one that simultaneously takes seriously, and mocks, the power and effects of appearance and performance.