He is a young, dashing, impossibly handsome politician, a rapidly rising star in his party, which prizes him for his integrity, forthrightness and brilliant oratorical skills. She is his wife, surpassingly cultured, graceful, and beautiful, an elegant young woman whose dinner parties and salons have already become the toast of the town.
Both are on a fast track to almost unimaginable mutual success—until an unscrupulous woman, once known to them both, re-enters their upper-crust social circle possessed of a dark secret from the husband’s distant past. It’s a particularly ruinous secret that, once revealed, threatens to destroy forever this golden couple’s meticulously, painstakingly built life of wealth, power, and fame.
Looks like another Washington scandal is ready to explode on the front page, right? Wrong. The year is 1895. The place: Victorian London, in many ways the unofficial capital of the known world. And the politician in question is Sir Robert Chiltern, the anti-hero of An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde’s biting yet witty satirical take on truth, morality, and society in British politics. The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s eye-poppingly opulent, incredibly timely new production of the play began its run this week at the Harman, and it’s a must-see winner for sure.At times, all this cynicism and corruption seems as if it’s purely the result of our own amoral and greedy times. But, in An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde lets us know that things have been rotten in Denmark, so to speak, for a lot longer than just the last decade. Always an outsider looking in himself, Wilde lets loose in this play with devastating effect.
There’s still plenty of Oscar’s sparkling Hiberno-English wittiness here to be sure. But An Ideal Husband has a particularly nasty satirical bite that none of his other plays quite match. And it’s also quite eerie. Take out the Victorian trappings and the British accents and you could easily imagine the events of this play unfolding in some sumptuous Georgetown drawing room this very day.
The first thing that strikes you about the current Shakespeare Theatre Company production of this play is its sheer, drop-dead gorgeousness. Whether due to matters of contemporary theater fashion, thinning budgets, or both, so many theatrical productions today are thin on the glitz and glamour that used to make live theater so special. That’s not the case here. The bulk of this production unfolds in a lavish, gleaming grand foyer/ballroom whose Simon Higlett-designed central grand staircase, columns, and supports glow in a granite black that’s softened and humanized by splashes of Victorian period art and floral color.
But that’s not all. Even more spectacular are Robert Perdziola’s lavish, flowing, radiant, and very expensive looking Victorian-era costumes. The men’s formal dress is natty and impeccably tailored.
And the women’s dresses and gowns—oh, my goodness. Your reviewer, who frequently doesn’t pay a great deal of attention to such things, was simply astonished by this amazing, breathtaking female plumage display. This reviewer’s Irish-born spousal unit—who tends to pay a great deal of attention to such things—was simply overcome by hand and the drape of these wondrous confections, pronouncing them brilliantly-tailored and utterly authentic to the last detail, even while wondering where she could get one. She also noticed that—quite properly—each and every scene begat a new and even more stunning outfit for milady.
The production quality is so sublime that it takes you a moment to focus on the fact that a play is actually unfolding onstage. And it’s a credit to the company’s extraordinarily talented cast that, within moments of the first wisp of dialogue, one quickly forgets they’re watching an acting troupe, so convincing are their mannerisms and characterizations. We are literally whisked away to late-Victorian England where, politically at least, things are the same as now, only different.
In large roles and small, every single cast member excels. But, as in any play, the key players are most important, and there’s not a bad performance among them.
As Sir Robert Chiltern, Gregory Wooddell is crisp, circumspect, and proper, rarely dropping his mask even in extremis. At all times, he seems the very model of a modern British gentleman, to the point where you begin to feel sorry for him and for the youthful indiscretion that puts him in his current pickle. Wooddell’s performance is stiff upper lip at its best, a dead-ringer for the way things were, or at least were meant to be.
As Lady Chiltern, Rachel Pickup radiates the cool elegance and ease that only a proper, happily married upper-crust English lady could ever know. Her ability to maintain a significant degree of poise even after the façade of her husband’s perfection has been abruptly shattered is as painful as it is convincing.
Enter Lady Chiltern’s rival and Sir Robert’s deadly menace, the narrow, scheming, ice-cold yet still-attractive Mrs. Cheveley. As portrayed by Emily Raymond, this Mrs. C would be at home in our own times, so coldly and ruthlessly does she play her hand without regret or remorse. For her, politicians are to be bought, not negotiated with. Even blustery, current AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka would be cowed by her. Naturally, her effect on Sir Robert is even more devastating, eviscerating almost instantly, his poise and self-assurance as she quickly teaches him how to fear.
Every English lord who’s immersed in scandal can use a best buddy. Here, it’s the moderately dissolute but remarkably clever and loyal Lord Goring. Careless and carefree in his own indolent life, he’s nonetheless able to rally to Sir Robert’s defense even as he discreetly counsels Sir Robert’s wife. Cameron Folmer manages to keep his Lord Goring casual yet calculating, and his alertness to every social nuance eventually helps provide a skeleton key that could prove the way out of Mrs. Cheveley’s dilemma.
As Lord Goring’s cantankerous father, the Earl of Caversham, veteran actor David Sabin adds a welcome buffo comedic touch to this sometimes surprisingly tense satire. Irritated at his son, he’s on autopilot as he tries to navigate the latter toward adopting the proper surfaces of upper crust Victorian life. Sabin inhabits the part quite convincingly, although his English accent occasionally disappears in the process.
Direction by Keith Baxter is a marvel of understatement and ease. Each character’s movement is natural, assured, and extraordinarily lifelike.
The only thing that could use a bit more work here in successive performances is the opening fusillade of dialogue. The drawing room set, lovely as it is, is also acoustically cavernous. The effect is a bit like singing an Allegro passage of Haydn or Mozart not in a small church but in, say, the National Cathedral. You have to slow things down somewhat and enunciate carefully, lest the echo-chamber effect of the space obliterate the words.
The actors all seem to be aware of this issue and speak quite loudly when they need to. But slowing the pace just a bit would help render more of the opening dialogue intelligible which it occasionally was not during Sunday’s performance. Admittedly, Wilde’s dialogue often comes across best at a rapid clip. But a slight compromise on the tempo here would reveal more of the fun while only slightly lengthening the play’s running time.
A hat tip and a bow to all involved. Shakespeare Theatre’s grand, sweeping production of An Ideal Husband is a marvelous treat for any avid theatergoer. We’d also recommend this production highly to politicians and their families on both sides of the aisle. It might just give them pause before they cut yet another questionable deal late at night.
An Ideal Husband
by Oscar Wilde
Directed by Keith Baxter.
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including one intermission
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