If the wit of Oscar Wilde is not enough to lure you to see “Lady Windemere’s Fan,” which opened Saturday at the California Shakespeare Theater, then go for this: One of the funniest portrayals ever of British aristocratic pomposity and malice by Danny Scheie, who plays not one but two ascerb ladies in scenes that would be as much at home in Monty Python’s Flying Circus as Wilde’s Victorian drawing room.
Scheie, however, is not the only one who shines in this glittering rendition of one of Wilde’s most entertaining works, directed by Christopher Liam Moore from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The entire cast waltzes gracefully through this comedy of manners with a heart, where one encounters many of Wilde’s best known, most scathing observations at every turn.
Emily Kitchens plays the doe-eyed Lady Windermere, a product of her age, determined to be good, but troubled by intelligence. The work takes place on her coming-of-age birthday.
She is a mother, married for love, she notes, to the wealthy Lord Windemere (Aldo Billingslea). Her life is as perfect as her flower arrangements until the Duchess of Berwick arrives to share the information that Lord Windemere is caught in the toils of a bad woman, the infamous Mrs. Erlynne (played with glamorous style and feeling by Stacy Ross).
Could it be true? Yes, Lady Windermere discovers it is, after a struggle with her conscience as to whether she can look at her husband’s bank book. He has carefully noted each time he has given this woman money.
Ah, it gets worse. Lord Windemere arrives after giving his wife a birthday gift of a fan, and he requests she invite this notorious Mrs. Erlynne to her birthday party. The horror of his request is enough to tempt the proper Lady Windemere to run off with her admirer, Lord Darlington (Nick Gabriel). But she gets only as far as this rake’s chambers when she loses her nerve.
Her own husband is arriving at the door with a group of men. She will be ruined. She hides — but she leaves behind her fan. The Victorian gentlemen discover it. Now she is really in the soup. Who can save her? Or, more aptly, why would the seemingly soulless Mrs. Erlynne sacrifice herself to save Lady Windemere?
“I can resist anything but temptation,” purrs Lord Darlington. In this case, take a cue from his lordship and so not resist the temptation to see “Lady WIndemere’s Fan.”
The fog may drift in from the Berkeley hills to the Bruns amphitheater; the chill wind may rattle Lady Windemere’s chandeliers but nothing can dim the brilliance or temper the warmth of this utterly delightful, thoroughly sparkling show.
“Lady Windemere’s Fan” plays at the California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda through Sept. 8. For tickets and information, visit CalShakes.org or call 510-548-9666.